The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

December, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Tommy Lee Jones

Starring:Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones

In a world of free-market economies and the global dispersion of poor and victimized peoples, what are the obligations we humans owe one another? If we fail to fulfill them, in which direction lies the path of remedy?  The sun-scorched topography of The West Texas Hill Country may seem an improbable setting for a morality play, (disguised as contemporary western) that plumbs these issues, but 1st time director Tommy Lee Jones provides some thought-provoking answers in this intriguing film. Working from a vulgar but bracingly crisp screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, (the award-winning screenwriter of Amores Peros and 21 Grams) Jones delivers a uniquely 21st century riff on sin, suffering , redemption and that most modern of evils, alienation. Along the way, Jones turns in his best performance in years and provides similar opportunities for Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo and Dwight Yoakam, three wonderful actors not seen with the frequency their talents deserve. Launched amid the typical holiday glut of entertaining-if-bloated escapism, (King Kong) and the season’s crop of sophomoric romantic comedies (Rumor Has It, Fun With Dick & Jane) Jones & Co. have created, with modest budget and stubborn seriousness of purpose, one of the most thoughtful films of 2005. It couldn’t have come along at a more propitious time for an industry struggling to keep audiences engaged; if movies this good can’t find an audience among thinking adults, Hollywood’s in real trouble with the post-adolescent set.

As its title suggests, this cross-cultural analysis of personal redemption and the demands of community revolves around three internments, the first of which is felonious, the second callously indifferent and the third decidedly sacramental. Estrada is husband, father, cowboy and wet-back, working on a cattle ranch run by Pete Perkins, (Jones) for an absentee owner. The two become close friends thanks to a shared love of the hard work they do and their devotion to the hardscrabble land on which they do it. Amid one of their infrequent, terse but revealing conversations, Estrada, long absent from his family, extracts from Perkins the promise that he’ll return Estrada’s body to his Mexican home for burial should the situation ever arise. 

When hunters subsequently recover Estrada’s corpse from a hastily-constructed shallow grave, Perkins turns to Sheriff Belmont, (Yoakam) with the expectation that he’ll pursue justice for Perkins’ dead friend despite the latter’s illegal status. Stonewalling profanely, the sheriff flatly refuses to get involved and summarily rejects Perkin’s request for Estrada’s body. After Belmont hastily arranges a second burial in a potter’s field operated by the county, Perkins learns the name of the Estrada’s killer from Rachael, (Melissa Leo) the married café waitress with whom Perkins and Belmont are alternately sleeping. Perkins kidnaps the man, dis-inters Estrada and embarks on a long, exhausting journey to fulfill the promise. 

Jones and Arriaga deliberately jumble the presentation of these facts while unfolding the plot with brisk, sure-handed complexity by cutting back and forth in time and locale simultaneously to develop the story’s principal characters and the events which bring them together. More importantly, they quietly provide opportunities to observe the motivations of the film’s characters; here the director and screenwriter have the good sense to let their talented cast create personalities which present, in microcosm, trenchant observations about the importance of community, the inherent value of every human life, however imperfectly lived, and the "damned if you do, damned if you don't” tension which comes with deciding how to answer the question posed in that familiar New Testament question; “Who is my neighbor”?

Perkins’ pig-headed determination to honor what Christians describe as one of Seven Corporeal Works of Mercy puts him at odds with much in our culture; the alienation which accompanies the objectification of others, the tendency to hide behind bureaucratic structures to avoid getting personally involved and the time and cost involved in constructing real, meaningful relationships. Round-heeled Rachael clings firmly to the working-class security her marriage provides even as she employs the power nature placed between her legs to deal with the prevailing machismo of small town Texas life and the emotional void in her relationship with her husband. Sheriff Belmont’s decision to avoid any involvement in seeking justice for Estrada’s death comes from a cynicism so pervasive it finds expression in sexual impotence. Mike Norton, (a feral border guard chillingly brought to life by the gifted Pepper) brings the same isolated self-absorption to the semi-consensual sex he has with Lou Ann, his Barbie-Doll wife, as he does to the tit-and-ass magazine-induced masturbation he employs to enliven his solitary life on patrol. Lou Ann fights her husband’s indifference by constantly shopping at the mall; her unnamed next door neighbor shuns contact with virtually everyone other than her pet dog. In examining these cunningly presented lives, Three Burials underscores the inevitable corrosion which flows from a refusal to recognize and accept responsibility for failed interpersonal relationships.  

Does individual malaise abound when communal sharing is absent?  As the action in Three Burials moves south of the border, the movie quietly makes that assertion. Compared to the lack of healthy interaction that Jones depicts among his working class American characters, Estrada’s countrymen freely share with Perkins and his odd funeral procession what they have, be it a cup of coffee or a slice of freshly-killed game,. When a poisonous snake bite needs treatment it’s provided without payment; in return Perkins and his companion help shuck corn for a communal meal. In healthy human development, are there more fundamental prerequisites than the need for candid acceptance of individual vulnerability and the corresponding requirement of gratitude for blessings received?  

If none of Jones’ characters -- including the one he plays - - are without their imperfections, the same is true of his movie; the Mexican Odyssey, punctuated with far too many examples of the kidnap victim’s protracted suffering, goes on too long while the symbolism contained in some of the encounters near Estrada’s final resting place add little but length to the story’s telling. More puzzling are the scenes devoted to the preservation of Estrada’s corpse; Jones provides some lurid, off-putting detail here; if it’s an effort to generate black humor, the effort’s badly misguided. But these qualms constitute small beer, more than compensated for by the myriad joys of fully developed characters, an intriguing script and the vivid presentation of serious moral choices.   

 There’s not a shred of overt religious content here, just the careful parsing of values for audiences mature enough to have grown weary of the pious preaching, simplistic interpretations and self-righteous finger pointing so prevalent in America’s current religious institutions. “Three Burials” may abound in gleeful and often destructive sexuality, ferocious profanity and violence-induced physical suffering, yet Jones fashions from these off-putting ingredients a compelling collection of flawed human beings who struggle to answer important questions, even as they dimly grasp there may never be adequate ways to do so. But they can hope; in the film’s final scene, the gift of a horse becomes a symbol of reconciliation; in response to it, Norton, once described by his wife as “beyond redemption”, closes Three Burials with a line of dialogue which contains perhaps the most fundamental question any of us can ask another… “Are you going to be okay?” 

Having already garnered awards for best actor (Jones) and screenplay (Arriaga) at Cannes, expect to see this one in the hunt at Oscar time. It’s a small, nearly perfect gem; but avoid it if you’re easily offended or particularly squeamish.   

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