Urban Cinefile
"We started in France and went around the world to the US. We'd say to each other before meetings, 'If they bring up money, let's just say we'll get back to them'"  -Jane Campion on spruiking for The Piano, with producer Jan Chapman.
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Sunday May 20, 2018 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



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.

DVD extras include featurettes about the making of the music, the making of the film, presentation at Cannes, an interview with Guillermo Arriaga, deleted scenes, footage from the Paris Premiere and an audio commentary with Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Joakam and January Jones.

Published November 9, 2006

Email this article

Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 0

(US, 2005)

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


EDITOR: Roberto Silvi

MUSIC: Marco Beltrami


RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes




SPECIAL FEATURES: Make of the music; making of the film; presentation at Cannes; interview with Guillermo Arriaga; deleted scenes; footage from Paris Premiere; commentary with Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Joakam and January Jones


DVD RELEASE: November 8, 2006

Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2018