A great many of my critical brethren have praised this theatrical-feature directorial debut by Tommy Lee Jones for its gritty realism. Such acclaim may well be apt, but I suspect that what they really mean is that Jones’ film looks like what they’ve come to accept as gritty realism by way of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah.
Myself, I couldn’t say. I was in Texas once — to see Ken Russell’s controversial production of Madame Butterfly at the Houston Grand Opera, where they served Campari and soda at a party after the event. Since this isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of the wild-and-wooly West, it doesn’t strike me as sufficient tumbleweed cred for me to weigh in on what’s gritty realism here, and what isn’t. But I will agree that The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has the look and feel of Western-movie reality — with a decidedly postmodern twist.
Although the film gets to the physical splendor of the wide-open spaces, it’s equally grounded in the grubby modernity of crummy motels, seedy diners, trailer parks, etc. The story is certainly a contemporary one as concerns both the West and the state of film. That Jones chose a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga is significant. While Arriaga’s script for Three Burials is somewhat less complex than his ones for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros and 21 Grams, it has a not-dissimilar tone and takes the same basic approach, following events that cause the paths of otherwise unconnected characters to cross. The film seems more Arriaga’s work — at least thematically — than that of Jones, but that may be because there’s no other Tommy Lee Jones film to compare it to.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, an aging cattleman with a rather old-fashioned sense of honor. When his friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo, The Alamo) is killed under suspicious circumstances, Perkins finds himself fulfilling a promise he made to take Melquiades’ corpse back to his home in Mexico for burial. This isn’t as simple as it might sound. First of all, the way in which Melquiades died — shot by overzealous, racist, border-patrol deputy Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, 25th Hour) — is being swept under the rug by the authorities. Second, Melquiades’ first burial (by his killer) has been replaced by a second official burial in the town cemetery, and Perkins has no legal right to the body.
Neither this, nor the fact that the authorities have no intention of doing much of anything to Norton, deters Perkins, who kidnaps the killer, forcing him to dig up Melquiades and help take the body to Mexico for a third, proper burial. The remainder of the film follows the attempt to do right by Melquiades.
Though this story is given its share of attention — there’s a good deal of grisly business concerning the physicality of wandering about on horseback with a rotting corpse — the film’s primary focus is on the small details that link all the characters, and even the two cultures, in ways that may seem surprising. Much of it is rich and strange. All of it is beautifully photographed — a scene where Norton is being tended for snakebite by a woman he once brutalized in a border-cross incident is visually stunning — and done with a strong sense of commitment to the values represented in the story.
But the film is finally more successful in bits and pieces than as a whole. The deep sense of interconnectedness that exists effortlessly in the Inarritu films of Arriaga’s screenplays doesn’t feel as organic here, making Three Burials seem more calculated than natural. It works best mostly in those scenes that address the fate of characters from another age who cannot cope with the world as it has become. But those bits and pieces are powerful enough to make Jones’ film worth a look. Rated R for language, violence and sexuality.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke