The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
June 8, 2006
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) is a film that deals with the consequences of one’s actions. It’s a gritty, modern western in the tradition of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) albeit no where near as nihilistic.
Pete Perkins (Jones) is a rancher who lives near the Texas/Mexico border. He hires a new ranch hand named Melquiades or Mel (Cedilio) for short and they become friends. Mike Norton (Pepper) is an over-zealous Border Patrolman new to the area. One day while on patrol, he hears a couple of gunshots, returns fire and ends up killing Mel.
One day, Mel’s body is found by a couple of hunters, shot dead by a rifle and left to die. The town sheriff (Yoakam) isn’t too concerned with finding the murderer, conducts the customary autopsy and has him buried without notifying his family (who live somewhere in Mexico) or Pete. However, the rancher isn’t about to let it go that easily. Mel was his friend and Pete isn’t too thrilled with sheriff’s lack of interest in this case – he considers the man to be just another anonymous Mexican. Pete decides to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Mike, forces him to dig up Mel’s body and together they take him to Mexico for a proper burial with Mel pushing Mike to his physical and emotional limits.
Barry Pepper is good as the brutish Mike who becomes wracked with guilt over what he did. The young actor isn’t afraid to play a thoroughly unlikable character and yet still manages to humanize him to a certain degree over the time he spends with Pete as they go on the journey to bury Mel. A fine example of this is the occasions during the trip that breaks him down emotionally as all of his outer defenses are systematically stripped away.
Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as the gruff rancher with a strong sense of loyalty. Mel was his friend and it didn’t matter that he was Mexican. Pete isn’t going to let anyone stand in his way of bringing the murderer to justice. He aims to restore Mel’s dignity by giving him a proper burial while stripping Mike of his by beating him and getting him to do all sorts of menial tasks. Jones not only conveys the determinedness of his character but also the melancholy that hangs over him, haunted by his friend’s death. We can see it Jones’ eyes as the veteran actor does a fantastic job of conveying the unsaid pain that he keeps contained inside.
Jones has a good eye for the day-to-day drudgery of daily life. He takes the time to establish the main characters and their relationships with one another. The town these people live in is the kind of place where nothing much happens and boredom leads to bad choices with serious ramifications. He also does a nice job of alleviating some of the intense drama with dark, gallows’ humour a la Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. For example, one night, Pete notices ants crawling over the corpse’s face so he lights the head on fire to get them off. Like Benny in Peckinpah’s film, Pete goes to extremes in order to get his revenge.
Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay, like the one he wrote 21 Grams (2003), jumps back and forth from past to present in an almost abstract, arbitrary way, showing how Mel and Pete became friends while also showing how the former died both from his perspective and that of Mike’s. Not surprisingly, Jones shoots the movie from an actor’s point-of-view, allowing his cast to do their thing in long, uninterrupted takes making this a consciously character-driven film. There are several moments in Three Burials that don’t necessarily advance the story but do give us additional insight into how the characters behave and act towards one another. That’s not to say the film isn’t beautifully shot, Jones certainly has an eye for composition and fills out his widescreen aspect ratio rather nicely.
There is an audio commentary by Tommy Lee Jones and cast members January Jones and Dwight Yoakam. This is a fairly dull track as all three people spend more time watching the film than actually commenting on it. January Jones and Yoakam gamely prod Tommy Lee Jones with questions in an effort to get him talking but he is hardly the chattiest guy in the world.