THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA

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 Jones’ directorial debut’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 hand’s best friend Pete (director Jones), a corrupt local sheriff and the waitress who is involved with all of them; culminating in Pete’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 Menges’ 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 Jones’ own farm’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 characters’ 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 cop’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 Burial’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 Arriaga’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, Jones’ 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 Band’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 doesn’t), but because “Spanish sounds nice, don’t it?”

Three Burials is not, however without its faults. The time relationships between the ‘present’ 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 movie’s obvious attempt to make Norton so mean and unlikable that we won’t much object to his very violent kidnapping, Pete’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 buddy’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 Cedillo’s likable but unremarkable performance as Melquiades that begins to explain either Pete’s passionate love for his friend, or the mystery that Pete finds at the end of the road where his friend’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 Lee’s next, undoubtedly equally personal, project. If this is where the money from Men in Black and its sequel went, then I can’t wait for Men in Black 3. If you catch my drift.

Repertory Series: Holiday Adjacent • GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH • Saturday 12/15 at 9:30
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2 Comments

  1. kris4143
    August 26, 2006

    Gary, my sense of it was that he was intensely lonely, isolated, and that he had fabricated fantasy roots around the picture, tho I also felt that the lady in the picture knew SOMETHING about him… maybe a brief fling or indiscretion that she didn’t want her husband to know about… I think it’s one of those movie moments that we’re not supposed to figure out completely, like what Bill Murray says to Scarlett Johanssen at the end of Lost In Tranlation…

  2. garye1943
    August 25, 2006

    Is anyone sure whether Mel really had a family?
    (If not, why was he was in the “family photo”…)

    please comment.

    Thanks,
    Gary

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