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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

December 29th, 2006 · No Comments

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In Cibolo County, Texas, hunters discover the body of an illegal named Melquiades Estrada (Juan Cedillo). Authorities – including a brusque sheriff played by Dwight Yoakam – act like they’re doing a favor for ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) by notifying him, not realizing that besides employing Melquiades, Pete was also the immigrant’s friend.

We’re then introduced to border patrol agent Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) who’s moved to West Texas from Cincinnati. Mike gets carried away chasing down a pair of illegals and breaks the nose of a young woman (Vanessa Bauche), earning a polite reprimand from his superior.

Mike offers to buy his bored wife (January Jones) a Nintendo to keep her entertained during the day in their trailer. She eventually befriends a waitress at the local diner (Melissa Leo), who moonlights as a prostitute frequented by both Pete and the sheriff.

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While the sheriff shows no inclination to investigate Melquaides’ death and has him hastily buried, Pete learns the bullet pulled from the body matches the AR-30 round used by the Border Patrol. Mike has admitted to his superiors that he fired the shot, but in self-defense. He’s traumatized by this, but the sheriff does not intend to press charges.

Pete has other ideas. He abducts Mike at gunpoint and takes him to the cemetery, where he orders him to dig up Melquaides’ body. Fulfilling a promise he once made, Pete intends to take Melquaides back to his wife and family, in a place in Mexico no one seems to have heard of called Jimenez. Mike and a mule come along for the journey, with the authorities in pursuit.

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones and written by Guillermo Arriaga, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada combines elements of the Old West and New West oaters Jones is well known for, as well as magical realism, foreign film (Jones speaks Spanish throughout) and finally, the mesmerizing structure of 21 Grams and Babel, which Arriaga authored, skipping backwards and forwards in time.

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Jones – who made his theatrical debut as director and shot extensively in Big Bend National Park – isn’t interested in making a crowd pleaser or a revenge B-movie, which may account for why it didn’t sell a lot of tickets. Instead of going that route, Jones distributed copies of Albert Camus’ The Stranger to his cast, and made an A-film exploring alienation and redemption on both sides of the border.

There are frontier non-sequiturs here that reminded me of Sam Peckinpah at his best. These include encounters with the illegal whose nose was broken and who turns out to be a medicine woman with little in the way of bedside manner, a group of vaqueros watching an American soap opera, and a blind Gringo (Levon Helm) who feeds the Jones and Pepper and then asks them to kill him.

Everyone in the cast – even January Jones, the American Wedding thespian of no relation to the director – do fine work, and I admired the magical realism inserted toward the end of the film. Ignored at the Oscars, Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga were awarded Best Actor and Best Screenplay at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Chris Menges, who lit The Killing Fields and The Mission provided the striking cinematography.

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Tags: Ambiguous ending · Shot In Texas · Western

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