The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada


Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
"Ambitious, but also deeply flawed."

Someone noted recently that I don't seem to relate that well to westerns. The Proposition left me cold and the only westerns I rather like are Robert Altman's 'anti-western' McCabe And Mrs Miller and Sergio Leone's classic Once Upon A Time In The West. Maybe I fail to appreciate man's silent, adversarial relationship with the stunning landscape, or maybe it's the near visceral quality of dirt, sweat and blood that seems to leap from the screen, directly into my sense of olfactory memory, conjuring all sorts of imaginary, but nonetheless unpleasant smells.

Tommy Lee Jones' maiden voyage as a feature film director has produced a film which is ambitious, but also deeply flawed. The film is structured with intertitles, introducing each burial, as well as 'the journey' that precedes the final burial, a device that adds little in terms of coherence. Like a classic novel, Three Burials is a film that takes you a while to get into. At first, you're unsure of the structure and you can't quite work out how all these characters are connected, other than by sheer geography. Set on the border between Texas and Mexico, Three Burials relates the story of Pete Perkins' (Tommy Lee Jones) quest to solve the murder of his friend and fellow cowboy, Melquiades. In his attempt to solve the crime, he soon falls foul of the sherriff's department and the US Border Patrol.

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In another narrative strand, Mike (Barry Pepper) is a border patrolman recently relocated to Texas with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones). These two immediately strike one as easily summed up in the following terms: the Aryan hoodlum and his child bride. Mike has a brush cut and clips his toenails with a flick knife onto the living room carpet. Lou Ann likes going to the mall. Our initial impression of their married life is summed up in the scene where Mike enters the kitchen, hitching up Lou Ann's mini-skirt as she feebly protests. She then props her head up on the chopping board and continues placidly watching her soap opera, while Mike plows away for a minute or two.

The two narrative strands meet when Pete kidnaps Mike and forces him to travel to Mexico to help him bury Melquiades in his home town of Jimenez. Along the way, Mike undergoes a trial by ordeal that may prove to be his redemption. Three Burials is a film in the spirit of the work of politically engaged directors like John Sayles, who attempt to explore and point out America's internal injustices. Three Burials offers the possibility that the US may one day come to terms with its relationship to Mexico and with its diverse Spanish-speaking population, but some still believe, as Lou Ann says of her husband, "the son of a bitch is beyond redemption".

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2006
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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada packshot
A Texas ranch herd crosses the border by mule with a hostage and a corpse.
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Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Writer: Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Levon Helm

Year: 2005

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, France


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