THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, THE
Texas ranch foreman Pete (Tommy Lee Jones) befriends illegal Mexican immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). When Melquiades is shot by Border Patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), he is hastily buried in a shallow grave in the desert. The Texan police transfer the body to a pauper's grave but the investigation into his death is rapidly abandoned by Sheriff Frank Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). Determined to fulfil his promise to his late friend, Pete takes drastic steps to recover the body and coerce his killer, Norton, to accompany him on a horseback journey over the border to Mexico and find Mel's home village for his final resting place. But Norton's overnight disappearance triggers a police posse on their trail.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Who knows how the complex threads of friendship are formed, and who can understand the strangeness of human nature? It's a rhetorical question, I don't expect answers; there aren't any. They are raised by The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a film that, on the surface at least, is about friendship - and its flipside, alienation. Tommy Lee Jones (starring as Pete and directing) takes a risky and convoluted route to show us the formation of this friendship between a kind faced Mexican immigrant who had slipped into Texas five years earlier, looking for work. The film doesn't make clear that they'd been friends for all those five years, but Pete behaves as if they had. During one of their conversations, Mel (Pete's short form name for his friend) begs Pete to promise that if he should die, Pete will take him back and bury his body in Jimenez, his village. He doesn't want to be buried under "all those f****ing billboards" in Texas.
The film is constructed with flashbacks telling the story of the friendship while the forward thrust of the plot is gradually unfolding. It requires attention on our part, but is justified by the nature of the story. Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2005 for this role, a taciturn character who is brutal and sensitive, stubborn and vulnerable, self-contained yet loyal - one of those complex people so rare in contemporary film. There is baggage in his heart but we are not privy to it. How and why did he hook up with Melquiades? Was it a soul thing? At least we see them womanising together with two married gals from the town (January Jones, playing Mike Norton's [Barry Pepper] wife and Melissa Leo, playing diner waitress, Rachel). All of these performances are superb, and while Barry Pepper's character is the second lead, they are all important in populating this film with multi-faceted characters.
The Cannes jury also voted this the Best Screenplay (by Guillermo Arriaga), obviously taken by its layers, its economy and its sheer dramatic drive. It's powerful in the best sense, pounding the deep resonances of its themes while challenging the audience to dance along with its moral complexities. There is one moment, for instance, when Pete and his worn out prisoner come upon an old blind man living in the desert, facing a lonely and pitiful slide into death. He just wants someone to do him a favour and shoot him; what a poignant, conflicted moment. Pete is punishing the border patrolman for killing a man and now he has to answer this request.
Filled with source music of the region (country in Texas, Latin in Mexico) and peppered with curiously chosen snatches from tv shows being watched by several characters in various circumstances, Three Burials becomes a road movie when Pete sets off on his unstoppable journey, a pilgrimage really, to return his friend's body to home ground. But the road is hard, and the men, as well as their horses, are tested. There is a subtle shift in their relationship, which is superbly handled and so is the subtext of the story around Melquiades. He seems, in the end, to have come from nowhere; he becomes a symbol for the many like him, and the film asks us to consider their circumstances from a humanist point of view.
Authentic in every way, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is parable, buddy movie, western myth and road movie all rolled into one - one excellent one.
Review by Louise Keller:
Tommy Lee Jones is completely at home in the saddle - as first time director and playing Pete, the ranch foreman with a wild streak, who takes friendship seriously. With its classic themes of friendship, revenge and redemption, The Three Burials of Melquades Estrada is an engrossing film set on the Texas and Mexican borders, offering a little bit of everything - drama, humour, irony. But more than anything, this western-style buddy movie injects its own sardonic sense of right and wrong, asking what makes a man entitled to make life and death decisions?
The structure of Guillermo Arriaga's superb screenplay appears simple, yet it is as complex as the characters. The past and present alternate, as does the perspective. We think we know where the film is heading, but the direction keeps changing, and we learn there is more to the journey than reaching its destination. The harsh, unforgiving landscape with its dramatic vistas may look the same on both sides of the border, but for those who live on either side, it is a world apart. From Chopin to Roger Miller, the music is equally diverse. And while the characters may feel the same kind of emotions, they are reflected in a totally different way. Loneliness comes in different packages. Having a good job and beautiful wife does not necessarily mean you are not lonely, as reflected by Barry Pepper's potently portrayed border patrol officer Mike. His dreams and fantasies as he flicks through girlie photos in Hustler Magazine are far removed from Mel's, whose special photo is kept secure in his shirt pocket.
All the performances ring true, as do the incongruities, like the TV soapie watched by a bored wife being serviced by her husband or by non English-speaking Mexican workers by the roadside. The gift of a horse is symbolic. As is the favour asked by the old blind man, when the two men carrying the body of a dead man set about on their way. Emotionally - and when you least expect it - The Three Burials packs a massive punch, when Pete's humanity and Mike's understanding of it, is finally revealed. The ending has finesse and elegance, leaving us to contemplate the many miracles we have witnessed.
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TOMMY LEE JONES INTERVIEW
THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, THE (MA)
CAST: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Bauche
PRODUCER: Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Fitzgerald
DIRECTOR: Tommy Lee Jones
SCRIPT: Guillermo Arriaga
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Chris Menges
EDITOR: Roberto Silvi
MUSIC: Marco Beltrami
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Merideth Boswell
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 13, 2006