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Three Burials

  • Film

Time Out says

Cut from the same bloody cloth as John Hillcoat’s recent ‘The Proposition’, Tommy Lee Jones’ directing debut – full title: ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ – is a far superior, superbly performed and smartly written tale of companionship, male impotence and revenge in the face of institutional injustice. We find ourselves in frontier country, that parched and scrubby land where Texas meets Mexico, and where a dim troop of ineffective US border guards tries daily to stop the illegal flow of Mexicans across the border. Jones’ opening shot draws a broad portrait of a small, rural community with delicious, wry relish: it’s a place of simple trailer folk, over-the-hill, lusty waitresses and lardy sheriffs who struggle to get their end up when it really matters. A low-level misery pervades most lives; a grope on the backside is the height of sexual pleasure; even the adultery is pedestrian and unexciting. Yes, it’s all slightly mocking, but the characters deserve it.

It’s from this motley, sad crowd that Jones’ story emerges at the deft, controlling hands of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (‘Amores Perros’, ‘21 Grams’). In the film’s first scene, we watch as a pair of huntsmen fire at a grazing coyote from the back of their jeep. On closer inspection, the men discover that the coyote was chomping on a rotting human body. The film then cuts sharply to a sterile mortuary and the rough face of ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), who is suppressing a reflex to vomit. The corpse, it turns out, is that of Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), Pete’s Mexican friend and gentle ranch-hand.

Arriaga is patient with information; it’s left to later scenes to explain in flashback exactly how close these men were to each other. Promise me, Melquiades implores Pete as soft mariachi music flows into the soundtrack, that if I die here in America, you’ll take my body back to my family in Mexico. Pete’s word is his bond. He tracks down the culprit, sad-sack young border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), and forces him to dig up Estrada’s stinking body. Together, this strange pair set out into the dark night with Pete in charge: one dead friend, one live enemy. Arriaga’s choppy script swirls around the main event – Melquiades’ death – from past to present and back again. Slowly, the mist clears, the truth is revealed and ‘Three Burials’ settles into a visceral, painful, grotesque trip across a barren American terrain that evokes Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ and pitches human physical deterioration against the hardy border landscape. It’s a journey of redemption for Mike, a journey of loyalty for Pete.

Although the film is distinctly male in its interests, it’s the women who hold the reins, leaving the menfolk struggling to fulfil various ideas of what it means to be a man. Melquiades wants to honour his family; Pete wants to honour his friendship; even cop Mike struggles with his instincts, muttering at the film’s close a whimpering, surprising ‘Are you going to be all right?’ to the same kidnapper who has just hauled him through a burning desert ordeal. Unlike Pete and Mike, the women need no such voyage of discovery; they hold all the trump cards. There’s the waitress who refuses Pete’s invitation to travel to Mexico and marry him; there’s the Mexican girl who gets her own back on a violent Mike by thumping him in the face with a cold, hard jug; there’s Mike’s dippy wife, Lou Ann (January Jones), who leaves town altogether, apparently uninterested in the fate of her husband. Most poignantly, even Melquiades turns out to have been harbouring false hopes about family and home – a mechanism of survival, perhaps, for a rootless immigrant. And the plight of the Mexican immigrant is never far from Jones’ mind.

A big-hearted, grand and noble study of broken men and broken dreams, ‘Three Burials’ is cruel and comic, exquisitely photographed by Chris Menges and pleasingly old-fashioned in its commitment to elemental, vital storytelling. Tommy Lee Jones has delivered a great American tale.
Written by Dave Calhoun

Release Details

  • Rated:15
  • Release date:Friday 31 March 2006
  • Duration:121 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Tommy Lee Jones
  • Screenwriter:Guillermo Arriaga
  • Cast:
    • Tommy Lee Jones
    • Barry Pepper
    • Dwight Yoakam
    • Julio Cesar Cedillo
    • Melissa Leo
    • Richard Jones
    • January Jones
    • Levon Helm
    • Vanessa Bauche
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