The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Sometimes it takes an act of great personal bravery to make a film that one knows in advance will have only the most marginal appeal at the box office but that one also knows will have the resonance that only the best art has and therefore deserves to be made. I say that about "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and Tommy Lee Jones's insistence that he make it.
As director and star, and uncredited cowriter with Guillermo Arriaga ("Amores Perros" and "21 Grams"), this is Mr. Jones's film all the way. He is Pete Perkins, and in a dry and terminally dull town somewhere in southwest Texas close to the Mexican border, he runs a small cattle outfit and hires an illegal Mexican worker named Melquiades Estrada, who also keeps a small herd of goats of his own. The two men find they have a kind of bond: one hot afternoon Melquiades shows Pete a photo of his wife and children, across the border, whom he hasn't seen in five years. He asks a favor of Pete: if he dies in the United States, Pete should bury him back at home, across the border. He even draws a little map to show where. But Melquiades is shot dead by Mike Norton, a brutal, stupid rookie Border Patrolman (Barry Pepper), and the sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) won't investigate in order to stay on the good side of the Border Patrol captain. One hand washes the other.
Before I go on I must tell you that everyone in this film has a life and a fascination of his or her own. Mike's wife, from Cincinnati, is a kind of baby doll who watches soap operas during sex. Rachel, the local cafe waitress (Melissa Leo), is married to the chef but is happy to spend her boring afternoons fucking Pete or the sheriff. Arriaga, as is his style, has given the film a cubist structure, so that we see some events more than once, each time learning something new. Nothing is stressed more than is necessary; we are expected to keep up.
Once Pete figures out that Mike killed Melquiades we come to the second, and ultimately the third burial. He kidnaps Mike, forces him to dig up Melquiades' now-rotting body, and takes both the living and the dead men toward the border, to fulfill his obligation. The rest of the film is the story of their journey, a journey marked by unexpected incidents and strange revelations; there are overtones of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" here.
Jones has chosen his locations well; the dry mountains, deep-walled gorges and unexpected sand dunes that lead to fields of yellow wildflowers assault our eyes at every turn (the cinematographer is the great Chris Menges, who shot "The Killing Fields" and "The Mission," among others).
This is Tommy Lee Jones's first film as director, and while he stages some scenes like an expert there is still some unnecessary choppiness in others, as though he was so afraid of overstating things that he leaned a bit too far in the other direction. Nevertheless, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is constantly fascinating, often powerful, and ultimately redemptive. We surely cannot ask more of a film.