With The Three Burials of Melaquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones explores stark contrasts at the US southern boundary.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
After a long and occasionally impressive career as an actor, stone-faced Texan Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It’s a story about living on an international border between the first and third worlds. The setting is West Texas: the last outpost before the vast, undeveloped space marking the edges of two countries—a beautifully diverse, but often-merciless landscape. This landscape is a central character in Three Burials, and cinematographer Chris Menges shoots from a distance to let as much of its glory seep into the frame.
Jones works from a script by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), who divides his story into two acts. Arriaga spends the first act jumping around in narrative time. During the second act, he settles into the story of an old-fashioned journey, both literal and symbolic, in search of redemption and resolution.
Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a crusty and laconic ranch foreman whose closest friend is a fellow ranch hand and illegal migrant, the eponymous Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). Melquiades makes Pete promise that if anything ever happens to him in America, Pete will make sure he is buried close to his family in Mexico. When Melquiades is mistakenly shot and killed by Mike Norton, a volatile border patrolman (Barry Pepper), Pete makes good on his promise.
A promise holds a certain power in this isolated community where intimacy is dwarfed by the overwhelming natural landscape. At least on the Texas side, the film is populated by an uncommunicative bunch whose speech seems oppressed by big skies, open fields and dusty roads. In this socially stripped-down world, a promise is a promise and justice is of the frontier variety. That’s why when Pete begins his trip to Mexico with Melquiades’ dead body strapped to a horse, he’s accompanied by Norton, whom he’s beaten and taken captive. Norton has committed a murder, and Pete will dole out the punishment that law enforcement won’t and give his friend a proper burial at the same time.
Jones and Arriaga make great use of their minor characters, all of whom have memorable storylines and give fine performances. Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade) turns in another great performance as a sexually dysfunctional sheriff, and Melissa Leo is inspired as a married truck-stop waitress who’s sleeping with both the sheriff and Pete.
But Three Burials really belongs to Jones and Pepper. We’ve seen Jones’ tough-guy act before, but this time it’s laced with vulnerability and sadness. We have to believe in Pete’s friendship with Melquiades, and Jones manages to convey all the tenderness we need in one look, as he watches his friend happy and dancing. When we follow Pete into grief and a kind of temporary madness, Jones has us shifting emotions with him at every stage. And the fantastic Barry Pepper makes the most emotionally powerful transformation in the film. Pepper’s taut facial muscles seem to vibrate with intensity until they finally snap in the second half of the film, releasing into pain and anguish. Neither director Jones nor Pepper treats this character with contempt, which makes his transformation far more interesting to watch.
For many Americans, the border region exists in television news bites or in the subterfuge of political rhetoric. For Jones, this region of West Texas is his home, and with great sensitivity and insight, he’s created an homage to all that is beautiful and ugly about it.
THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA ( * * * 1/2 )
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones • Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam and Melissa Leo. • (R, 116 min.) • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Northridge Cinemas.