Written by Kris Tronerud
USA, 2005. Rated R. 121 min. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Leo, Julio Cedillo, and Levon Helm; Music: Marco Beltrami; Cinematography: Chris Menges; Produced by: Luc Besson, Michael Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Pierre Ange-Le Pogam; Written by: Guillermo Arriaga; Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
From the time of its release, Tommy Lee Jonesâ€™ directorial debutâ€™s unconventional structure, quirky shifts in tone, ambiguous resolution and very title seemed to guarantee that it would not find a large following at the neighborhood multiplex. Which is not to say that Three Burials is a failure. First-time director Jones has delivered a film which, though flawed, is richly observed, beautifully performed, always engaging, and stunning to look at.
Three Burials tells the simple story (in a not-so-simple way) of the killing of a ranch hand in a small Texas town, the intertwined lives of the racist border cop responsible, his disillusioned, neglected wife, the ranch handâ€™s best friend Pete (director Jones), a corrupt local sheriff and the waitress who is involved with all of them; culminating in Peteâ€™s kidnapping of the shooter to help him bring the body of his friend, “Mel,” back to Mexico for burial. The payoff, as we might expect, is the grudging respect and odd friendship which develop between kidnapper and hostage, and the redemption of the angry, narrow-minded border cop, but the routes that Three Burials takes to get there are anything but predictable, with startling violence flaring up just when we think things are working out, between characters who keep surprising us with their ability to discover, just in time, little pockets of empathy and humanity amid their emotional rubble.
Tommy Lee Jones has a real gift for capturing the detail and feel of time and place, and a sure and confident eye for composition; and with the help of Chris Mengesâ€™ fluid, painterly photography, a highly original, textured score by rising soundtrack star Marco Beltrami, and the gritty, striking South Texas and Mexican locations (one of which was Jonesâ€™ own farmâ€™s barn), Jones brings a strong and atmospheric sense of believability to every setting, from the arid, barren mobile home park in which Norton and his beleaguered wife live, to the dusty roadside diner which is the focal point at which all the charactersâ€™ lives intersect, to the breathtaking mountain country through which Pete and his unwilling helper make their troubling, quixotic journey. Unlike many neophyte directors who hire a great DP to cover for their inexperience, Jones uses his camera with a restrained but emotionally anchored style that quietly tells this unusual story with purpose and grace.
Jones also, however, reveals an uncanny knack for coaxing strong and memorable performances from a diverse assortment of players, and it is in its characters that Three Burials truly shines. Country star Dwight Yoakam delivers a brave and unglamorous performance as a pissant sheriff who, in a moment of truth, turns out to be not quite as much of an asshole as we first take him to be. Melissa Leo adds yet again to her long list of vivid, scene-stealing character parts as Rachel, the free-spirited waitress who befriends the copâ€™s wife Lu Ann, becomes her confidante, and seduces her into joining her in a motel tryst with Pete and the soon-to be shot ranch hand. Barry Pepper has the difficult task of setting up his trigger- happy border cop as such a bastard that he deserves the rough treatment he receives from Pete, only to gradually convey a sense of genuine change in quiet, authentic ways that allow us to share the very real pain of this essentially unlikeable young man.
But the revelation in Three Burialâ€™s cast, as Lu Ann, is newcomer January Jones, an actress who only a few years ago was regarded as a starlet-style sexpot. Here, Jones takes an underwritten part and, with subtle underplaying and sudden, fleeting wisps of expression, gives this bored, yearning house wife a very real and affecting depth not found in Guillermo Arriagaâ€™s occasionally brilliant but sketchy script. In the scene in which her husband comes up behind her in the kitchen and literally uses her as a sex toy, without the slightest tenderness or affection, Jonesâ€™ sad, resigned face quietly and desperately tells us all we need to know about this very, very bad marriage.
Watch also for the great Levon Helm who, happily, has taken occasional breaks from being The Bandâ€™s drummer to take on acting roles that are always instantly memorable; here playing an aging hermit who gives shelter to our wandering trio (ranch boss, border cop, dead body) and listens all day to Mexican radio, not because he understands Spanish (he doesnâ€™t), but because â€œSpanish sounds nice, donâ€™t it?â€
Three Burials is not, however without its faults. The time relationships between the â€˜presentâ€™ in which the investigation is taking place, and the flashbacks which show the friendship between the two cowboys, and the lead up to the killing, are awkwardly handled at first, and we are initially confused as to what is coming before and after what, blunting the emotional power of the kidnapping and the strange voyage that follows it. Also, despite the movieâ€™s obvious attempt to make Norton so mean and unlikable that we wonâ€™t much object to his very violent kidnapping, Peteâ€™s treatment of him is occasionally so brutal that we begin to sympathize with the cop long before we are supposed to. There are also attempts to introduce a macabre Peckinpah-style gallows humor into the relationship, often verbal, between Pete and his buddyâ€™s rotting corpse, which are meant to be funny and touching but instead come off as merely risible and off-putting. And there is nothing nearly charismatic enough in Julio Cedilloâ€™s likable but unremarkable performance as Melquiades that begins to explain either Peteâ€™s passionate love for his friend, or the mystery that Pete finds at the end of the road where his friendâ€™s family and home town are supposed to be. Along with some near-Dickensian plot coincidences, these distractions tend at times to interrupt the stately, naturalistic power at the heart of the film.
Still, Three Burials is a terrific first film that will please the patient and open minded who can ride through its brief missteps, and it will surely develop a cult following over the ensuing years. It also leaves us eagerly awaiting Tommy Leeâ€™s next, undoubtedly equally personal, project. If this is where the money from Men in Black and its sequel went, then I canâ€™t wait for Men in Black 3. If you catch my drift.