As a vision of the American West and the wide country around it, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada strikes both fresh and familiar chords, most of them pleasingly dissonant. Directed with a steady hand and an eye for eccentric detail by the actor Tommy Lee Jones, who also stars, this western about a Texas ranch foreman trying to bury his Mexican friend is an accounting of those borders that separate rich from poor, men from women, friend from stranger, and as such, is less an act of revisionism than one of reconsideration. As in most westerns, as in John Ford's Searchers and Cormac McCarthy's Crossing, the journey here is as spiritual as it is physical, as much inwardly directed as outward bound.
The first burial of the Mexican ranch hand Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) takes place soon after he is gunned down outside a Texas border town. A feasting coyote leads to the body, which in turn leads to a sham investigation. The local law, represented by a martinet called Sheriff Belmont (a great Dwight Yoakam), buries Melquiades a second time with a backhoe, despite the protests of the dead man's friend Pete (Jones). The corpse doesn't rest in peace for long. Pete, who affectionately called Melquiades son, starts sniffing around and finds a suspect in the person of a violent border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). With a gun and a couple of hard blows, Pete grabs Mike and then, as easily as if the two were digging for earthworms, they grab Melquiades.
The ensuing strange odyssey of the foreman, his captive and their purloined corpse takes us through one heart-soaring landscape after another, putting that hotly contested stretch of land between America and Mexico into new and beautiful relief. With Melquiades's pickled corpse slung over one horse and his battered and bruised hostage lashed to another, Pete heads toward Mexico to make good his promise to bury his friend in his own country. The travelers pass across scrubby desert and through vaulted stone canyons, their horses stumbling in sand dunes that at first seem to stretch as endlessly as those in Lawrence of Arabia, only to give way to hills ablaze with nodding sunflowers. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Chris Menges, Jones reveals why this land still tugs at the imagination.
The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaDirected by Tommy Lee JonesStarring: Tommy Lee Jones (Pete Perkins), Barry Pepper (Mike Norton), Julio Cesar Cedillo (Melquiades Estrada), January Jones (Lou Ann Norton), Dwight Yoakam (Sheriff Frank Belmont), Melissa Leo (Rachel), Levon Helm (Old Man With Radio), Vanessa Bauche (Mariana)Running time: 120 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
Written by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the similarly fractured Amores Perros and 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada begins as two separate narrative strands that twist together only when Pete and Mike make their forced acquaintance. One of those strands, set in the present, hinges on Pete looking into Melquiades's death; the other, set in the immediate past, tells the cheerless story of the border guard and his bored baby-doll wife, Lou Ann (January Jones). Recently relocated, the young couple have yet to find their place amid the taciturn locals, many of whom seem more rootless and alien than transients like Melquiades, who rides into Pete's life one day to settle into a comfortable partnership of herding, conversation and motel visits with the local talent.
Jones, whose face is a landscape of craggy suggestiveness, handles the story's cubistic structure with finesse. The murder in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is not much of a mystery since the brutal and pathetically banal circumstances that led to it are revealed fairly early. (Still, this first-time film director and his editor, Roberto Silvi, work fast, so blink at your peril.) The mystery emerges instead from the land itself and from the two inscrutable travelers, who are often as quiet as their fast-putrefying companion. In a film filled with plaintively expressive faces, characters say as much when they don't talk as when they speak. Arriaga's dialogue, which sometimes sounds like hardscrabble poetry, sometimes sounds real as dirt and is, rather surprisingly, often darkly funny.