13 March 2006

current cinema: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

three burials of melquiades estrada

starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones
written by: Guillermo Arriaga
directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
R, 121 min, 2005, USA

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the directorial debut of Academy Award winning[1] actor Tommy Lee Jones, is a meditative study of one man's tireless devotion to his best friend and the personal hell one can trigger through the careless use of firearms. In addition to directing, Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a ranch hand of simple means who makes a promise to his dear friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) that should he die in the United States, Pete will ensure that Melquiades is taken across the border and laid to rest in his hometown, where he can be with his wife and children. So when Melquiades is accidentally shot by distracted Border Patrol guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to intercede on behalf of a "wetback", Pete takes matters into his own hands--kidnapping Norton and forcing him to dig up Melquiades and escort him back to Mexico.[2]

Plot-wise, that pretty much it. On the surface, it sounds like a simple enough premise: bury Melquiades Estrada, dig him up again, and take him across the border. And in a lot of ways it is, until the script by Guillermo Arriaga[3] starts layering in subplots and flashbacks and false starts that come together to give the story a surprising amount of depth. The story originates in the sort of small Texas town where everyone eats breakfast at the same diner and the lone waitress has alternating affairs with several regulars, even though she's married to the cook. This sort of extracurricular activity is kept secret from absolutely no one. So in a town like this, where everyone knows everyone's business and there's a lot of personal baggage attached to everything, it feels natural when Arriaga sets up potential conflicts only to abandon them later on in the film. It's as if the film presents a situation that could branch off in several directions, but with a character like Pete at the helm, there are no options, no maybes, nothing but an all-consuming need to fulfill a promise to a friend. It's exactly the sort of stubborn devotion we expect from our cowboys.

With the exception of the flashbacks, what Tommy Lee Jones gives us in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a classic Western, a natural progression of the genre perfected by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Clint Eastwood, with a healthy dose of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Jones films in long, assured takes that often consist of little more than beautiful scenery, eschewing visual tricks. As is often the case with actors who segue into directing, the film is designed to focus on the performances that serve as the film's ballast.

Jones, in particular, is quite good in the lead role. Personally, I had begun to give up on him, considering his lackluster filmography as of late[4], but his performance here restores the gruff exterior we all love. On top of that, though, this is a man battling different emotions as he grieves the loss of his friend. There's a scene in the police station where he appears to be on the verge of tears, and he's consistently mad enough over his death where you half-expect he might kill the next person to get in his way. There's a lot bubbling under the surface. Barry Pepper, his companion for the trek to Mexico, is in the unfortunate position of being the recipient of Pete's unique form of desert justice. Not only must he stay in close proximity to a increasingly rank Melquiades Estrada for the duration of the trip, but he must do it in Melquiades' clothes, handcuffed and barefoot. The tragedy of the whole scenario is that the shooting was an accident, as Pepper thought Melquiades was firing at him as he perused an adult magazine while on patrol. So not only must Pepper deal with a nightmarish traveling party, but also the guilt of having killed an innocent man and a marriage that, by all appearances, seems to be on the rocks. Pepper is great in the role.

When all is said and done, what The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada gives us is another homage to the power of a love between two cowboys (or ranch hands). It would be simple for Pete to ignore the request of Melquiades, especially when it became increasingly clear that he was going to have to break the law to do it, but that sort of friendship, that sort of love between two men is a hard bond to break. The Western genre has always been filled with that sort of unending devotion. It matters little if it's John Wayne tracking the indians that captures his niece or Clint Eastwood avenging Morgan Freeman or a love affair that lasts decades. What matters is that level of commitment that drives them to do what few sane men would consider, and to do it with a stoic knowledge that this is the way it must be. There are no other options for men like Pete Perkins. Melquiades Estrada must be returned to his home, consequences be damned. It really is beautiful.

[1] Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive (1993), also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for JFK (1991). He also won Best Actor at Cannes for this film.

[2] An attentive reader with basic math skills will recognize this as only two burials of Melquiades Estrada. There is a brief period just after the shooting where Melquiades is hastily buried due to broken refrigeration in the morgue. Hence, the title.

[3] Best known as the guy who wrote the Alejandro González Iñárritu films 21 Grams (2003) and Amores perros (2000).

[4] Think Man of the House (2005), that awful looking abomination about the FBI agent looking after cheerleaders.