From its palpable rapport with the rugged Tex-Mex landscape to its simultaneously jaundiced and generous view of the human condition, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” looks and feels like the best Sam Peckinpah movie since the late maverick himself ventured south of the border. Tommy Lee Jones’ bracing bigscreen directorial debut, which copped acting and writing awards from the Cannes Film Festival jury, connects with both the head and the heart. Critical acclaim will guarantee interest among smart specialized audiences, but it will take a masterful campaign by a committed distrib to muscle the film, which is about half in Spanish, to deserved success with the general public, including the growing Hispanic market.
Outstandingly realized on all levels, the picture filters a harsh story of senseless and brutal behavior through a sensibility strongly attuned to the absurd, humorous and illogical aspects of existence. Behind it all is a tale of redemption, an insistence on the significance of all human life in a geographic and political context in which life’s value is easily and commonly minimized.
Penned by Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, “Three Burials” is told in a fractured, non-sequential way, complete with chapter headings (“The First Burial,” etc.), although it’s simpler structurally than the two films that put the scripter on the map, “Amores perros” and “21 Grams.”
After a brief prologue in which two hunters in the desert come upon a coyote feasting on a man’s corpse, pic sets up the dynamics in dirt-poor border area Cibolo County, Texas. Young Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) has just arrived to work for the hard-pressed Border Patrol. Sullen and uncommunicative, he does nothing to ease the transition for his uncommonly gorgeous wife Lou Ann (January Jones), who spends parts of her vacant days at the local diner, where she befriends straight-shooter waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo).
A woman who makes it her business to get what she wants, Rachel is married to the cafe owner, but is having simultaneous affairs with rugged, down-to-earth ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) and local Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). Pete hires a young illegal from Mexico, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), with whom he forges a strong bond, while Belmont takes an expedient view of dealing with both the Border Patrol and the difficult daily issues of crime and illegals.
Although crucial incidents are revealed at select moments and from different points of view, the pivotal act has Mike, panicked by gunfire he hears while on routine desert patrol, accidentally killing Melquiades, whose body he hastily buries. A resulting cover-up has the local authorities decide not to pursue justice in the case, since it was “only” an illegal who died.
Enraged when he learns of this, Pete barges into Mike’s home, tying up Lou Ann (who, as arranged by Pete, had been conducting a secret affair with Melquiades), and taking Mike away in order to administer his own form of correct moral justice.
The film gets down to business in the surprising, vivid second half. Pete compels Mike to dig up Melquiades’ body and journey on horseback into Mexico, where, in fulfillment of a promise, the cowboy will bury Melquiades in his native village near his family.
This forced march, which recalls aspects not only of Peckinpah but “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” is necessarily brutal and bitter, as Pete keeps Mike in suspense as to his own fate just as he tries to push him to full recognition of the stupidity and severity of his horrible act.
The script and Jones’ acutely intelligent work as director and actor give the journey a full-bodied dimensionality shot through with abundant flavors. There’s the comic absurdity of Pete’s attentions to Melquiades’ rapidly deteriorating corpse, which include partially burning it to kill devouring ants and brushing its hair, which promptly falls out in clumps. There’s brutality in a poisonous snake bite and the beating of a young woman, and unexpected poetic grace at an isolated desert cantina where a girl plays Chopin on an out-of-tune old piano.
Road to the climax contains surprises of its own, both for the characters and audience, and payoff is richly earned.
Arriaga’s script is so deeply conceived that, even though the characters do many profoundly misguided things, the viewer understands these people well enough to accept them; there’s no melodramatic good-and-evil here, but a range of human pros and cons hopelessly intertwined.
Jones’ gritty, clearheaded direction amplifies these qualities; it’s at one with the material in much the same way the life-and-death drama finds its natural stage in the desert. Reinforcing this feeling is Chris Menges’ widescreen cinematography, which is exceptionally expressive of the rough textures of the landscapes (some of the action was filmed on Jones’ own West Texas ranch).
Playing an iconic, grizzled, old-style cowpoke, Jones takes him deeper, investing Pete with values simple but not simplistic and navigating a path that does right by everyone in his life who deserves it.
Pepper potently puts over the most problematic role — that of a young, shallow man who hasn’t yet learned to properly deal with either life’s bounty (his lovely wife) or its hardships (a challenging job).
Leo invests her wonderfully conceived role with a zest for life, while January Jones is an alluring, sympathetic vessel waiting to be filled. Yoakam and Cedillo are fine in the other significant parts.