Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Julio Cedillo and Tommy Lee Jones shoot the breeze in happier times in ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.’
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, January Jones, Dwight Yoakam, and Levon Helm. Written by Guillermo Arriaga. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Rated R.
Salsa Western

With help from a Fort Worth actor, Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in a novel cinematic achievement.


Guillermo Arriaga’s prior indie collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, 21 Grams and Amores Perros, were lauded by critics and made a bunch of year’s-best lists. Yet neither is as half as good as the Mexico City-based screenwriter’s latest work.

Both Grams and Perros, two car-crash-obsessed meditations, are a chore to watch. Instead of just telling a good story straight, Arriaga, in those films, tells a weak story in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth between past and present. Of course, the device can’t hide the banal plotting.

Maybe all of this explains why Arriaga’s latest script is arguably his best — or maybe The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is just damn good.

An adventurous blend of snotty art-house visuals and laugh-out-loud dark comedy, Three Burials is also a feather in the cowboy hat of director and star (and Arriaga’s behind-the-scenes collaborator), Tommy Lee Jones. The Oscar-winning San Saba resident has said that Three Burials was inspired by the writings of Flannery O’Connor and by Old Testament texts, two sources of literature that also draw a fine line between the seriously grave and the silly and that don’t always tell stories in a straightforward, chronological manner.

The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005, puts a spiritual, psychedelic, and biblical spin on the tragic and true events surrounding the 1997 shooting death of an illegal Mexican immigrant by a border town patrolman on the U.S. side.

Between Arriaga’s cutting and pasting and Jones’ sardonic wit, the movie is as joyously confusing as hell. Parts are funny, parts are horrifying, and parts are so out of context that you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or sigh, but every minute is a ride.

Jones plays West Texas ranch foreman Pete Perkins, whose days of cattle-roping end and days of vigilantism begin after his helping hand Melquiades (played by Fort Worthian Julio Cedillo) is murdered by an Ohio-born redneck cop named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). Though we’re never sure why Pete took such a strong likin’ to his late vaquero, we don’t really mind accepting his need for vengeance on faith. Most of what we learn of Pete and Melquiades’ relationship is told in a flashback to a conversation over beer between the two after a hard day on the job. Mel says that if anything ever happens to him, he doesn’t want to be buried in the United States, “among the billboards.” He asks Pete to transport his corpse across the border to his hometown, Jimenez.

By the time we hear of this conversation, we already know that Mel has been killed and that Pete is on the warpath — he straps Mike’s wife (January Jones) to a recliner, kidnaps Mike, makes him dig up Mel’s body, and takes both of them on horseback through West Texas and into Mexico in search of Mel’s native soil.

The journey keeps the narrative in check — no more flashbacks, no more fast-forwards, no more gimmicks. We’re taken on a trek of both mind and body: Pete’s mind turns to mush, while Mike’s body is tortured. Pete talks to Mel’s corpse; Mike gets bitten by a snake. Pete brushes Mel’s coarse hair; Mike tears off pieces of his jeans to protect his bare feet from the hot sand. You get the picture.

Throughout the trek, grotesque characters pop in and out of the tableau. There’s the abandoned blind man in the dilapidated shack (former Band drummer Levon Helm), the lily-livered county sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), and several others, and they all play small roles in the Homeric quest. Their contributions are back-dropped by one panoramic shot after another of sweeping vistas and rocky mountains (mostly shot on Jones’ 110,000-acre ranch outside Van Horn), courtesy of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission).

After a mainstream acting career of fugitive-chasing, cattle-herding, and alien-nabbing, who knew Jones could also be a formidable auteur? Or, at the very least, a skillful borrower from the greats, including the ones he’s mentioned as his directorial muses for Three Burials: Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, and Sam Peckinpah. Don’t misunderstand: Three Burials is more than just homage. It’s one, big, glorious stab at re-inventing the Western for contemporary audiences.

Though Clint Eastwood’s methodical Unforgiven still reigns as the best “new” Western, Jones may be bidding to make a lunge for the title — he’s already written the script for the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s famously convoluted and ultra-violent Blood Meridian.

And who better to plan a coup than the co-star of one of the most successful small-screen Western epics of the last 20 years? In case you’ve forgotten, Lonesome Dove also involved Jones carrrying a dead body home.

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