AFI FEST Report: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Review
Tommy Lee Jones has staked out West Texas in the same way that John Ford claimed Monument Valley as his own. As a bonus, he brings Barry Pepper along for a bumpy ride.
Even if you didn't know beforehand that Jones was born and raised in West Texas, you'd know it by this picture's innate knowledge of the people and landscapes. THREE BURIALS pulls you into an arid, rocky country dominated by big skies and empty spaces. Jones plays a grizzled cowboy named Pete Perkins who runs a cattle ranch for an unseen off-site businessman and is known for treating his workers fairly.
Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) rides up on a horse one day looking for work. He doesn't hide the fact that he's arrived illegally, but Perkins doesn't much care about borders and gives Melquiades a job.
The two become close friends, sharing their dreams and illicit affairs with married women. The latter occurs when Perkins, who's already having an affair with waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), gets the shy Mexican set up with Rachel's friend Lou Ann (January Jones), a bored American housewife.
Plot details get a bit tricky because screenwriter Guillermo Arriage plays around with time. So we know nearly from the outset that Estrada has been killed, and who did the killing. We also understand the part played by new Border Patrol Officer Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) in Estrada's death, and we know that Norton is married to Lou Ann. All that's left is for Perkins to drag Norton back to Mexico with Estrada's dead body so his friend's wish to be buried in his hometown is fulfilled.
The plot machinations are handled by director Jones at an unhurried pace. With some films that could be the kiss of death, but the slower pace keeps the focus on the characters. Perkins is his own man with his own sense of justice, but he realizes his limitations. He's in the latter stages of life and he only wants to do things that please him. He's not concerned, for example, that Rachel is also sleeping with the Sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) because he's sure he's the better lover. When he can't convince the Sheriff to investigate Estrada's death after repeated attempts, he takes the law into his own hands, but only as a last resort. As both an actor and director, Jones captures Perkins perfectly.
Despite my misgivings about his work in another film that played at the festival, Barry Pepper soars here as Mike Norton. In his early scenes, he comes across as an earnest jerk who desperately wants to avoid being unmasked for who he really is. He's tightly wound, but has no idea how to relate to other people. He has a hair-trigger, unrepentantly bloody response when two illegal aliens make him chase them, way beyond what the situation merits. In a spontaneous, pre-dinner lovemaking session with Lou Ann, he has no clue that she checked out mentally long before he finished. For long periods of the film, Pepper is gagged and/or restrained and must act entirely with his body. As such, his body language is incredibly expressive, and you start to feel sympathy leaking in at the corners for the hapless Norton.
According to the publicity materials, Jones commissioned Arriaga (21 GRAMS, AMORES PERROS) to write a screenplay about the region with only a few suggestions. Yet despite Arriaga's past record, and the way that the first 30 minutes moves forwards and backwards in time, this is one Western you won't be tempted to call revisionist.
With his second directorial effort, the first being the TV movie THE GOOD OLD BOYS in 1995, Jones has made an old-fashioned dramatic Western that feels completely up to date with admirable concern for human rights and an opinionated view on immigration issues. Chris Menges' never overwhelming cinematography helps immeasurably, as does Jones' willingness to acknowledge that other films have trod the same path before. To note just one reference, the way that Perkins unrelentingly pulls Norton into Mexico called to mind the way that stubborn bounty hunter James Stewart dragged outlaw Robert Ryan across mountainous terrain to justice in Anthony Mann's THE NAKED SPUR, and more experienced readers could easily cite a dozen other influences on the film.
THREE BURIALS is a modest picture, and I don't want to build it up too much, but its virtues far outweigh the few faults one might find. If you're in the mood for a strong drama with the powerful stamp of the West upon it, mark this one down as one to see.
Twitch's own Todd found the French trailer for the film last month, which you can read about here. The film has recently been released in Greece, France, and Poland, and the good people of Belgium can see it beginning Wednesday. Netherlands gets it in January and Spain in March 2006.
Sony Pictures Classics will release THREE BURIALS in New York and Los Angeles on December 14 for a one-week qualifying run for Academy Award consideration, and then rolls it out again on February 3, 2006. Their web site is here.