Review: Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006) R 121min
August 26th, 2008 by Maxim · No Comments · 6,519 Views
This award-winning picture was directed by Tommy Lee Jones, his first work as director, and based on the book by Guillermo Arriaga, an Oscar-nominated author and play-writer. Arriaga also wrote script for Universal/Focus feature film Amores Perros (2000) starring Benicio Del Torro, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, 21 Grams (2004) and finally Babel (2006), which together with the other two pictures complete a trilogy focusing on life and death.
The plot: Mexican cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is mistakenly killed by a rookie border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) next Texas/Mexican border and buried in the high desert. A week later his body is accidentally discovered and reburied in Van Horn’s town cemetery. His friend, ranch foreman Pete (Tommy Lee Jones) claims his body to keep the promise he made to bury him in his home town of Jimenez on Mexican side of the border near his family. But when town’s sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to give Melquiades Estrada’s body to Pete because he is not a relative, and also refuses to do anything to find Melquiades Estrada’s killer, Pete takes the matter into his own hands. Nothing stays a secret in the small town for long time, and Pete soon finds out that it was border patrolman Mike Norton who killed his friend. Determined to honor his friend’s wish and to bring some kind of dignity to his death, Pete kidnaps Mike, makes him dig Melquiades Estrada from the grave and ties his body and Mike to the mule to journey across the border and deliver his friend’s body to his family. While they travel, the reality of people’s life on both sides of the border is revealed.
The good: An amazing story of friendship and loyalty, focusing on life, death and redemption. The characters are fully explained and multidimensional. Every protagonist has feelings and compassion. Even though people sometimes act weird and illogical, we still can care for them and understand them and their motivation. Their misjudgements and miscalculations only make them more human. Their unpredictability is what makes them fascinating – who knows how human mind works?
One of the aspects of the movie is that every character seems to be trapped in the existence with complete apathy to their lives. Some attempt to escape, like Mike’s wife Lou Ann (January Jones – Bandits, Love Actually, American Wedding). Some beg… to be shot, like the blind old man (Levon Helm) who lives alone in the mountains and has nothing to live for or look forward to except more episodes of the soap operas on TV. Some look for at least some excitement, like sheriff’s wife Rachel (Melissa Leo – 21 Grams, Falling Objects), who’s a waitress at a cafe and lives the most boring life possible, no longer a young woman, she makes herself available to strangers at motels. They live in the middle of nowhere and at the dead-end, getting old and rotting alive in this desolate place – all of it symbolized by a girl playing Chopin on an out-of-tune piano in the empty saloon. All of them yearning for a glimpse of happiness but they are all stuck. They live and die with no dignity or legacy – ashes to ashes.
Great suspense: Pete and Mike are being chased by the border patrolmen after the kidnapping; the audience wonders is Pete is going to escape, will he survive, or will Pete execute him for what he had done to his friend.
Even though the story is quite horrific considering a dead guy has been excavated twice, the story is not without humor. Pete is trying to preserve the body and talks to it like Hitchkock’s Psycho: he dresses it, he fills it with antifreeze to keep it from rotting and decomposing further; he even sets its face on fire to save it from ants. He tries to comb his dead friend’s hair, but it all falls off. His pathetic efforts are hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time. After years they has spent working together on the ranch, Pete is so used to having his friend around that he keeps talking to him while the body continues to decompose and the corpse looks less and less like his friend.
The life of Mexicans on either side of the border is also part of this movie’s focus. Sheriff was supposed to investogate the death of Melquiades Estrada, but when he finds out who killed the cowboy he chooses to protect Mike Norton over the “wetback” illegal immigrant whose life isn’t worth a piss. In between two countries we see coyotes lead people through the desert over the border to Texas, and Mexican families living on home-grown food or the cowboys with their 4WD cars drinking and watching same soap operas.
Amazing photography by Chris Menges (The Killing Fields) showing rugged Texas landscapes, the desolate deserts full of rattlesnakes.
The bad: Though Barry Pepper’s performance is totally believable and and actions of his character are totally accepted by the audience, he is not a good character actor – he is a technician, a soldier who follows orders of the director. He does exactly what he is told to do with great precision, but he seemed to be detached from his character, if not in every scene but at least in the most important ones. Couple of unpleasant goofs too: crew was visible in at least two shots.
The summary: Great story of loyalty and friendship that also exposes life of people in Texas and Mexico. Fantastic acting and directing by Tommy Lee Jones. Pretty good acting by Barry Pepper. Beautiful photography.
The cast: Pete Perkins – Tommy Lee Jones | Mike Norton – Barry Pepper | Melquiades Estrada – Julio César Cedillo | Belmont – Dwight Yoakam | Lou Ann Norton - January Jones | Rachel - Melissa Leo | Old Blind Man – Levon Helm | Juan – Guillermo Arriaga
The crew: Director – Tommy Lee Jones | Writer – Guillermo Arriaga | Producers – Luc Besson (Kamikaze, Nikita/La Femme Nikita, The Professional, Taxi 1-2-3-4, Kiss Of The Dragon, The Transporter 1-2-3, Fanfan la tulipe, Arthur and the Invisibles, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Fifth Element), Michael Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, Eric A. Williams | Music – Marco Beltrami | Cinematography – Chris Menges (North Country, Stop-Loss, Notes on the Scandal, Dirty Pretty Things, The Killing Fields, Local Hero)
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