The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada
There are many ways to read The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, but it may require more than one sitting. I’ve seen it twice and could easily watch it twice again. It’s that much better than most of what we usually get to see at the movies. This film was released in 2005, which should have made it eligible for The Academy Awards. Why it isn’t on the list of best films is beyond me. In my book The Three Burials… is a much better film than the vastly overrated Brokeback Mountain.
Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs The Three Burials… He plays the part of Pete Perkins, a laconic ranch foreman, who hires and befriends the eponymous Melquiades. When Melquiades dies under suspicious circumstances, Pete’s thirst for justice, and perhaps revenge, drives the plot through its poetic twists and turns.
Jones’ performance may be the best of his career, and he is more than ably supported by Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo, Dwight Yoakam, and Julio Cedillo.
Barry Pepper plays a rookie border patrol agent named Mike Norton. He’s a callow and insensitive young man. His hormones are more active than his brain. And it’s his libido that sets in motion the events at the heart of the film.
Melissa Leo is magnificent as Rachel, a woman who’s come to terms with circumstances she’d not have chosen. Within a carefully honed morality, she skillfully fulfills her needs. But beneath her surface equanimity and good humor, we sense an abiding sadness. That she communicates this wordlessly, and with barely a gesture, is the mark of her excellence as an actor.
Dwight Yoakam turns in a fine performance as a conflicted sheriff whose on-and-off-the-job performance isn’t always up to snuff.
And Julio Cedillo is charismatic as the title character, Melquiades Estrada. Melquiades is a skilled cowboy and a generous man. He becomes a friend and surrogate son to Pete Perkins. With a fateful prescience, he asks only one thing of Pete. If I die here, he says,
“I don’t want to be buried in the land of billboards”. He wants to be buried at his home in Mexico, a place called Jiminez.
If there are several plausible ways to read The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the most obvious is that this is the story of Pete, a man who will go to great lengths to keep his promises.
But I prefer to interpret the film as Mike Norton’s story, the narrative of a man who undertakes an involuntary odyssey during which he is forced to confront the bitter fruits of an unexamined life. Kicking and screaming all the way, and subjected to karmic laws,
he encounters figuratively and sometimes literally, mythic figures, including a snake and a vengeful version of Eve.
By turns a dark comedy and a subtle case for tolerance and racial harmony, The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada establishes Tommy Lee Jones as a first rate director. I haven’t mentioned the cinematography, which is stunning, or the script, which is smart, surprising, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, or the soundtrack, often odd but always apt. What this adds up to is one beautiful, sad, and very impressive movie.
Too bad there aren’t write-in ballots for the Academy Awards. I’d suggest stuffing the box.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.