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Dead Man Riding: Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”

Dead Man Riding: Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"

This season’s other cowboy bonding pic, Tommy Lee Jones‘ spare, deeply warped theatrical directorial debut may not be as socially radical and ultimately important as “Brokeback Mountain.” But in all other respects (structure, dialogue, and detail) it’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” with its sun-drunk flights into the absurd, that takes the risks. There’s something so admirably cavalier about Jones, who could have taken on any subject, devoting himself to this story of a “simple” cowboy hauling his best friend’s decaying corpse across the border. Guillermo Arriaga wrote the screenplay, and as with his Inarritu collaborations, “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” he continues to favor out-of-order structures. So while the titular burials do occur chronologically, the genesis of Pete (Jones) and Melquiades’s (Julio Cesar Cedillo) friendship is told in shuffled fragments. Some critics called out “21 Grams,” crowing that the nifty structural strategy served largely to puff up a weak story with po-mo razzle-dazzle. In “Three Burials,” the ploy serves to both undermine assumptions and efficiently compact growing companionships and tensions into a manageable time frame. About halfway in, the movie abandons the out-of-order structure, and because Arriaga and Jones have already hit so many resonant notes we’re prepared to take this nearly farcical, quixotic journey quite seriously.

“Three Burials” is based on a real killing near the Texas-Mexico border southeast of El Paso. In 1997, a group of marines, purportedly on a drug interception mission, shot and killed 18 year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr. “in self defense.” Hernandez, who was armed at the time and whom the marines claimed fired at them, was outside herding goats. It was the first murder of an American citizen by military personnel since Kent State. Eventually there was a settlement, and no arrests were ever made. In the movie, Estrada is a lonely cowboy who has left his family (whose actuality is called into question by later turns of event) to find work in Texas. His only friend in the new country is Pete Perkins, a seemingly solid and simple man uninfected by the region’s inherited racism.

At one point, Mel asks an obliging Pete to return his body to his home country to be buried in the case of his death. Barry Pepper is Mike Norton, the vulgar, mercurial border patrolman recently relocated, along with his bored blond wife (January Jones), from Cincinnati (a city with a distinct lack of need for border patrolmen and an exceedingly white trash point of origin if these two are meant to be representative). Out on an uneventful watch one day, Norton parks his jeep and finds an out-of-the-way rock patch, then proceeds to whip out a Hustler and drop trou. His furtive jerk is interrupted by shots fired in his general direction, so he scurries to the jeep, grabs his rifle, and returns fire. What follows is a determined investigation by Pete (constantly forced to mask his desperate anger with the ineffectual police, led by Dwight Yoakam), and after he’s fingered Norton, the fateful kidnapping and cadaver relocation.

Tommy Lee Jones in a scene from his film, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Photo credit: Dawn Jones, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The success of the movie rests on whether or not the final line of spoken dialogue, which begs a new understanding of the unremitting brutality inflicted by Pete upon Norton, rings true or false. The qualified triumph here, in my opinion, owes in most part to Jones’s sneaky, sensitive, and finally empathetic lead performance, his best since “Lonesome Dove.” His Pete cannot be pinned down. At times, his hangdog drawl hints at retardation (not the one-note droopiness of “Sling Blade“‘s Karl), but his calculating maneuvering and sadistic torture are signs of a shrewd psychopath. Palling around with Mel, he’s just a good ol’ friend. If these extremes sound unrealistically manic, it’s a testament to the power of Jones’s performance that his character and the film never leave the earth–you can hear Pete’s beautifully right sense of justice humming throughout.

Some lazy characterizations, disappointing in contrast to Pete’s richness, work against “Three Burials”‘ virtues. Yoakam’s racist sheriff (“I don’t have to do a damn thing–he was a wetback”) is thoroughly loathsome as a given. Fine, but a scene revealing his sexual inadequacy is a pathetically facile explanation for his moral defaults. Yet Jones, a staggeringly physical performance from Pepper, and the stark simplicity of the vistas (along with a purple dusklit drunk-dial scene at an open-walled desert saloon that is one of the year’s most poignant and ravishing visuals) overwhelm any of the screenplay’s shortcomings. In this story of the bonds of friendship and split cultures sewn together by a jagged, porous border, Jones has achieved the feat of making the height of almost slapstick absurdity make exquisite sense.

[Justin Stewart is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Take 2
by James Crawford

This year, there have been two politically charged films directed by Hollywood acting heavyweights–and if there’s any justice, Tommy Lee Jones’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” will be remembered more fondly than George Clooney‘s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Clooney’s visually sumptuous political parable is a cute civics lesson, but it’s essentially a straightforward drama, an actor’s paradise that doesn’t have the wherewithal to interrogate its own form.

“Three Burials,” by contrast, is acutely concerned with addressing the movie western. In tackling the prickly social inequities that inflect contemporary U.S.-Mexico border politics, Jones pushes his narrative to the last untrammeled frontier terrain. And its plot, replete with an absurdist revenge structure and a hero that teeters on the border of insanity, interrogates the normally well-defined moral poles. It doesn’t amount to an outright deconstruction like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” because Jones lets the spirit of canonical westerns percolate through “Three Burials”–its compositions of barren canyons are lifted from “The Searchers”–but he does address the genre’s syntax. Not the least reason being that this is one of the few westerns where white folks are outnumbered by Latinos (large segments of dialogue are conducted entirely in Spanish).

It’s all less heavy-handed than one might expect, however, because Jones’s textual predilections and obvious redneck-baiting politics (his feelings towards Texas Republicans are encapsulated in a scene where Mike Norton mechanically screws his wife in their kitchen while she, equally bored, never takes her eyes off her soap opera) are bolstered by his beautifully unaffected performance, which modulates between enraged moral rectitude and a deep-seated melancholy that perpetually threatens to break his character in two. His eyes, so adept at betraying bombastic fire and brimstone, recede into fathomless tears at the mere mention of his late friend’s name.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Pepper in a scene from Jones’s, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Photo credit: Dawn Jones, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 3
by Nick Pinkerton

What a welcome surprise it is to discover the Tommy Lee Jones of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”! Since “The Fugitive” (and the Oscar), the heft of the actor’s screen work has been defined by his knack for exuding off-hand “old pro” competence, and anyone prone to confusing the persona with the artist could be forgiven for expecting Jones capable of directing a solid, stolid “the West is changing” oater and little more. But something as obsessively picturesque, crookedly handcrafted, and singular as this movie? Maybe the evidence was there, but I’d missed it.

“Melquiades Estrada” owes an obvious debt to Peckinpah‘s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” another death-suffused, Mexican-set quest movie saddled with a cargo of carrion, and you might catch a whiff of “Unforgiven” when two chummy hombres on horseback josh about whacking off. But this picture is very much its own, curious self: an often haphazardly arranged, maladroit widescreen frame, baffling “chapter” divisions replete with intertitles, jumbled, off-beat chronological leaps, a wet-eyed, ambivalent lead performance by Jones, a gristly postmortem turn from the titular character, and a narrative drive that steadily dissolves into slack lyricism. The potential is always at hand for the material to depart into message movie territory–when a U.S. border patrol agent (buzzcutted cracker Barry Pepper, a dumb attack dog) gets to take a firsthand tour of “the other side,” a solemn lesson seems as good as guaranteed–but the film always defers, ambling away from the big scene into the next strange interlude. It’s a work whose priorities lay in these singular moments: a pack horse flailing down a cliff face, a ranch hand pinching red ants off his dead friend’s face, a tracking shot crashing into a deluge of wildflowers. When all that might’ve been expected of him is restrained elegiac competence, Jones has given the reign to his taste for strange beauty; “Brokeback Mountain” will hog the awards, but this is a “different” Western love story that really vibrates.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor.]

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