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Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Tommy Lee Jones walks several miles in Peckinpah's shoes."
4 stars

“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” may well go down as the greatest Sam Peckinpah film that Peckinpah never made and not just because it focuses on a surreal south-of-the-border journey involving a hard-bitten loner and a corpse (which true film fans will recognize as the basic plot of his deliriously scuzzy 1974 masterwork “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”). Like many of Peckinpah’s most notable films (such as “Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’), the film is ostensibly a western but it is one that is set long after the idealized notions of the period–that a man’s word, loyalty and friendship were the most important things that he had to offer–had blown away like the dust in the name of progress and it centers on an old-timer who stubbornly clings to those values even though he recognizes that what was once the rule has become the exception. However, while Tommy Lee Jones (making his feature directorial debut) has made a film that is so suggestive of Peckinpah that we half-expect to see the likes of Slim Pickens and Warren Oates amble in to the strains of a thunderous Jerry Fielding score, this is not merely an example of a beginner trying to cloak himself in the trappings of a master–this is an impressive work of filmmaking in its own right and contains one of the best performances of Jones’ long and illustrious career.

Set in a dry and dusty present-day town on the Texas/Mexico border, the film opens as the corpse of a man is found half-buried out in the middle of nowhere. This is Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), just another Mexican who illegally crossed the border to try to make a better life for himself and his family back home. During his time in Texas, Melquiades made exactly one friend in hard-bitten loner Pete Perkins (Jones)–for all we know about Pete, whose human contact seems to be otherwise relegated to an occasional roll in the hay with Rachel (Melissa Leo), the wayward wife of a hateful local cop, Melquiades may have been the only real friend that he ever had in his long life–and Pete is determined to learn how his friend died and to fulfill a vow to return his body to his family in Mexico. To the local authorities, however, Pete is an old coot and Melquiades is just another dead illegal and after a perfunctory investigation (i.e. nothing), the body is dumped into a pauper’s grave in town.

This enrages Pete and furthers his determination to see justice done. Eventually, he learns that Melquiades was shot and killed by hot-headed and quick-tempered border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) for reasons that were, if not as cut-and-dried as they may seem, thoroughly unnecessary. Realizing that no court is going to convict Mike for the killing, Pete decides to take the matter of getting justice for his friend into his own hands. He kidnaps Mike from his trailer home and forces him to first dig up the body and then come with him across the border on horseback to help him give Melquiades a proper burial in his hometown.

This set-up, which covers approximately the first third of the film, is a bit rough and unfocused at times. Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay once again utilizes the fractured time structure that he used brilliantly in “Amores Perros” and to lesser effect in “21 Grams” but the results seem more like an affectation than a legitimate method for telling the story. (In general, unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise, it is almost always a better idea to tell your story in the most straightforward manner possible.) Once they get onto their journey, however, the story straightens its way and turns into a fascinating journey of a man who is hell-bent on honoring his friend and teaching the man who killed him why he would go to such extreme lengths to do so. And like the best road movies (which this technically is, despite the use of horses instead of cars), there are plenty of colorful and intriguing detours along the way. The duo encounter an ancient man (Levon Helm) living alone in the desert who, when Pete asks if he can do anything for him, makes a surprising and touching request. In another interlude, Mike escapes but gets himself snakebit in the process–he is rescued by some villagers and only then discovers that the woman who can save him is the same person that he violently rousted when he caught her sneaking across the border a few weeks earlier. (The way in which she deals with this person’s reappearance in her life is enormously entertaining.) There is even some gruesome black humor to be had as well in the way that Pete deals with the inevitable decomposition of his friend’s body.

These are all touches, as I suggested earlier, that would not have seemed out of place in one of Sam Peckinpah’s westerns (and for proof, I recommend that you get your hands on the new “Sam Peckinpah’s Legendary Westerns” DVD collection as soon as possible) and most of the characters that we encounter could have been imported directly from those films as well. However, while it is clear that Jones and Arriaga are fans of his particular style of filmmaking, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” has a life of its own beyond that of mere tribute. This is one of those films that always keeps you interested because you have no idea of which direction it is heading–some scenes are raucous crowd-pleasers (as the aforementioned encounter with the aggrieved woman) while others are quieter moments in which the full impact doesn’t set in until later on (there is an especially interesting scene later on where Pete learns some unexpected facts about Melquiades and reacts in a manner completely keeping with what we know about him). As a director, Tommy Lee Jones goes about his work in much the same way that he does as an actor–everything seems simple and direct enough on the surface but there are always strong and complex emotions beating just beneath the surface that ground the potentially ridiculous nature of the story in a definitive reality. (And while it is easy to overlook him in the rush to praise Jones, Barry Pepper also turns in exemplary work in a deceptively complex role–the film is really his journey, after all–that lacks the likable edge that most of the other characters are afforded.)

“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is not flawless; in addition to the needlessly jumbled nature of the opening reels, the screenplay introduces a potentially interesting character–Mike’s bored and seemingly child-like wife (January Jones)–and then lets her simply slip away from the proceedings instead of giving her something of interest to do. However, once it finally hits the road, it turns into a funny and memorable meditation on friendship and loyalty that seems almost radical in these increasingly cynical days at the multiplex. And for fans of Tommy Lee Jones, it serves both as a reminder that he can be, when working with strong material (and not fluff in which he is babysitting bubble-headed cheerleaders), one of the most formidable and authentic actors working today and a suggestion that he may be on the way of achieving that same kind of distinction as a director.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12875&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/02/06 23:39:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/27/17 Anne Selby One of the best 5 films I've ever seen 5 stars
6/13/12 tommy still in shock, amazing job by TLJ, Pepper shines 5 stars
11/25/07 g webster I really liked this film.Jones does an excellent job. 4 stars
8/13/07 Garry Not your typical Hollywood plot. I liked it. 4 stars
3/27/07 MP Bartley Hard opening 20 minutes to crack, but it develops into a charming and heartfelt parable. 4 stars
9/24/06 Phil M. Aficionado Barring a couple of far fetched plot twists, and some "jumpiness" it's a first rate beauty 4 stars
8/12/06 Danny I was pleasantly surprised, actually a very good movie. 4 stars
8/07/06 Indrid Cold OK, but mostly just comes across as ponderous and annoyingly politically correct. 3 stars
7/30/06 Jim Crappy. Story line was less believable than Shaggy Dog 1 stars
6/08/06 john bale Tommy Lee Jones excells in this gritty drama - one of the best films this year 5 stars
5/22/06 Gideon beautiful photography, great acting 5 stars
4/09/06 the untrained eye Like staring at a beautiful south western still life 4 stars
3/18/06 Marlene Winter Why wasn't this film nominated for an Oscar?! Psychologically and visually gripping. A su 5 stars
3/06/06 Elizabeth Simply excellent. 5 stars
2/17/06 Gary U Like a good wine, complex and lingering. Well done! 5 stars
2/10/06 m a timely film re: everyone's right to be mourned 5 stars
12/15/05 Kathy Fitzgerald A masterpiece-see it 5 stars
11/30/05 Carlos Reyes Wow, what a great film. One of the year's best without doubts.The Screenplay is awesome!!! 5 stars
11/21/05 Dora Great. Poetic. Deep. 5 stars
10/01/05 Carlos Reyes Oscars Get Ready, Arriaga makes an awesome script and tommy is great directing and acting. 5 stars
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  14-Dec-2005 (R)
  DVD: 06-Jun-2006



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