The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
We tend to imagine the traffic on the US/Mexican border heading primarily in one direction: North. But these borderlands exert a substantial pull on the Yankee imagination too, including possibly the most famous curtain-raiser in cinema, the five minute tracking shot which kicks off Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
In Hollywood cinema, Mexico is an escape route… a place of cheap booze, women, men (Brokeback Mountain), and drugs (Traffic). This was evidently Sam Peckinpah’s idea of heaven, and he romanticizes the country as some kind of macho Shangri La in all his best films, but especially in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Tommy Lee Jones, who hails from Texas and lives near the border, never got the chance to work with Peckinpah – more’s the pity – but Peckinpah would have appreciated Jones' granite stoicism as an actor, just as he would have loved the yearning and the adamancy his first theatrical feature as director, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Me too.
Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) begins the movie as coyote chow out on the scrub land where he raised chickens and kept his head down. Things go from bad to worse when the sheriffs bury him without ceremony and without notifying kith and kin – a signal that they intend to cover up his murder as well as his mortal remains. But they don’t reckon on Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). Melquiades made Pete promise he’d bury him back home if and when he bit the dust – not ‘here with all the billboards’ – and Pete isn’t about to forget it. He means to take his friend’s killer down with him too. So he kidnaps border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and like Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, he digs up the body and sets out for Mexico.
Even if the police weren’t on their tail, the journey would be hard. Norton isn’t exactly enthusiastic and Melquiades is in bad shape. ‘The ants are eating your friend,’ Norton tells Pete as they shelter from a snap storm. The cowboy dowses the corpse in beer then sets it alight to burn the bugs off. At the next farm he gets a hold of a hose pipe and some anti-freeze and pours it down Melquiades’ throat, preservative for the trail (kids: don’t try this at home).
Pete is a practical man. But he puts store in friendship and honesty and he expects others to do the same. When Norton makes a bid to escape, after Pete’s been thrown from his horse in the desert, the cowboy hangs back and lets him run himself out – at least Norton is giving his all, for once, and there’s a sense that Pete is happy to see him try.
If this odyssey is essentially about fulfilling an obligation to a friend (just as Jones once carried Robert Duvall’s body all the way back from Montana to Texas in Lonesome Dove), it’s also about taking a long hard look at Mike Norton and evaluating whether or not he is beyond redemption. To find out what he is really made of, he has to pass over to the other side, south of the border… it’s from there that he can look back on his American life with some genuine perspective. (Not incidentally, Three Burials is far more penetrating commentary on American racism than Crash.)
Is this a Western? Tommy Lee Jones chooses not to say it is, presumably because he knows from first hand experience (The Missing) that it can be considered box office poison. So it’s a contemporary drama, if you like, but it’s a contemporary drama about men on horseback, searching for something nebulous in the wilderness that we call ‘the west’. It’s a backdrop that gives the drama scale and dimension – especially when the topography is photographed with the expressive power and beauty DP Chris Menges brings to the task.
Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga also wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams. You will know him by his jigsaw approach to chronology and the guilty spiritual baggage he carries on his shoulder. But Arriaga’s obsession with redemption sure fuels compelling stories. All three films pack a wallop, but I think this may be his most assured script yet. Laconic and terse as the best Western, Three Burials shows that unspoken thoughts are the movies’ rarest currency. Maybe the Mexico Peckinpah dreamed of never really existed. It doesn’t matter. The dream is worth holding on to.