March 29, 2008
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Tommy Lee Jones became one of the most well known actors of modern American cinema after achieving worldwide fame during the 90s with highly successful movies like "The Fugitive", "The Client" and "Men in Black". Having built a good reputation as a solid actor, in 1995 he decided to try himself as a director in a modest movie made for television named "The Good Old Boys", and while the film received good reviews and even was nominated to several awards, Jones decided to put his career as a director on standby, and keep focusing on his work as an actor. However, in 2005 Jones returned to the director's seat with "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", a film written by Guillermo Arriaga, the acclaimed writer of "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams". Using the theme of life in a border town as a background for their story, Jones and Arriaga create an amazing modern western about friendship, loyalty, and redemption.
The movie starts with the discovery of the dead body of Mexican cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) half buried in the desert near a Texan border town. Without any real clue of who killed him, the Police decides to leave the case unsolved, as since Estrada was an illegal immigrant, they assume that he was involved in criminal acts. The only one unwilling to believe that explanation is Melquiades' best friend and coworker, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), who decides to discover who killed Melquiades, as he considered him his only friend. After discovering that the man who killed Melquiades is actually a member of the border patrol named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), Pete kidnaps him and starts the long trip to the small town of Jimenez, Coahuila, where he promised to take Estrada's body as it's the place where he wanted to be buried.
Writer Guillermo Arriaga builds up his quixotic tale of loyalty and redemption as a mix of road movie and modern Western that explores the nature of human relations (both real and ideal) as the two main characters travel from Texas to Mexico. As usual in Arriaga's works, flashbacks are used to flesh out the characters and their relationships; however, this time their use becomes secondary to the actual journey itself and the personal growth the characters experience there. This doesn't mean that the characters are simpler this time, on the contrary, they are completely developed and feel very real, very human. While the story inevitably does touch the subject of the political relationships between the U.S. and Mexico, surprisingly it never loses its focus and remains dedicated to his characters and their journey towards Jimenez.
The film's biggest surprise comes from director Tommy Lee Jones, who in this his first theatrical feature has truly surpassed all the expectations. Without many pretensions, Jones makes a raw and very realistic portrait of the alienation of the Texan border town, while telling the story of a man whose only friend has been killed and nobody seems to care about it. A native of Texas himself, Jones truly captures the life at a border town (from both sides of the border), although he lets the magical realism style of Arriaga's story to flourish without problem. With the superb cinematography of Chris Menges, and the excellent score from Marco Beltrami, Jones creates a haunting and beautiful portrait of the adventure of this two men. Considering the high quality of this film and his previous directorial effort, it's surprising that Jones doesn't direct more often.
The cast is simply excellent, making Arriaga's characters alive with a huge dose of humanity and dedication. Tommy Lee Jones once again shows off his talent, proving that he still has the magic to bring compelling characters to life. It is really he who makes the character of Pete Perkins more than what it's on script, as his natural presence and body language do more to the character than his spoken words. However, while Jones indeed shines through the film, the real revelation is Barry Pepper, who as Mike Norton gives definitely the best performance of the movie. Forced to travel with Perkins, Norton is the character who experiences the greater revelations as they look for the place to bury Melquiades for the third and final time. It is truly an unforgettable performance that shows the young actor as a truly talented thespian.
I think that what makes "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" work is the fact that Jones seemed to realize not only the potential of the script, but also his own limitations as a director, and decided to play by them without aspiring to nothing more than to create a good movie. It is this apparently simple approach what fits the story perfectly and makes this modern western a compelling quest for redemption in the purest style of Sam Peckinpah. Spiced up with some black comedy, the film unfolds in a slow but nice way, carefully setting up the stage for the journey's deep revelations. My only complain is that while this is definitely one of Arriaga's best (and more straightforward) works, his now trademark use of flashbacks, albeit limited, is still a bit confusing (not in a good way like in say, "21 Grams", but in an unnecessarily stylish way) and initially breaks the pace of the movie.
It may sound adventurous to say it, but I think that "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is without a doubt one of the best movies of 2005 (despite its 2006 release), and a terrific cinematic experience that reminds us that the Western genre is not dead. While purists may find the contemporary setting a turn off, this is a Western at heart, exploring the theme of friendship in a melancholic, moving way that makes a parallel to the complex relations between the two countries and their people. Quirky, deep and strangely very spiritual, this tale of friendship, justice and redemption is a must-see not only for fans of the Western, but to movie fans in general. Hopefully, the success of this film will prompt Jones to direct films more often, as this is one truly remarkable "debut".
Buy "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005)