Heart of brightness
Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
As strange a tale of retribution as you'll see, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada begins with a needlessly complex structure that takes about half an hour to sort past from present. We're involved in two stories before we learn how they're related to each other, or the sequence of the events we're watching.
|Nothin' like getting drunk out in the desert!|
In South Texas near the Midland/Odessa area a local lawman finds the body of a Mexican, dead from a bullet wound, being eaten by a coyote. The deceased is identified as Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), who was undocumented but considered "a good Meskin" because he wasn't involved in drugs or smuggling.
In fact he worked on a ranch with Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). They were such close friends it's necessary to insert a scene where they go to town to get laid to distinguish this film from BrokebackMountain. Pete asks Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) to give him the body once it's been autopsied so he can return it to Mexico, but Belmont orders it buried. (That's the second burial. We don't really see the first but presume the killer covered the body and the coyote uncovered it.)
The other story is about a new border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who moves to town with his wife, Lou Ann (January Jones), from Cincinnati. They buy a "mobile residence" where Lou Ann proceeds to be bored. Mike promises to buy her a Nintendo but probably doesn't follow through, and what we see of their sex life suggests things aren't much more interesting for her when he's home.
Lou Ann starts hanging out at the local diner and is befriended by the waitress, Rachel (Melissa Leo, in the film's best performance), who is married but having affairs with both Pete and Belmont.
On the job we see Mike is inclined to use excessive force. His cohorts take their work less seriously. When three illegals slip past them one patrolman shrugs, "Somebody's gotta pick strawberries."
You may want to stop reading if you're concerned about spoilers, but what follows is necessary to know to get into the core of the film. When we see Mike shoot Melquiades everything else we've seen shifts around and falls into place.
A little detective work and Pete discovers who killed his friend. The law already knows but they protect their own. Pete kidnaps Mike at gunpoint, makes him dig up the body, and the three of them head to Mexico for the third burial, initially pursued halfheartedly by Belmont.
From there on out Three Burials is a road movie through parts of two countries that have no roads. Pete is more concerned with honoring his friend's request than avenging his death, although Mike's fate is never certain. They make an odd trio, counting the decomposing body they're transporting.
Levon Helm is touching as a blind old man who gives the travelers hospitality and makes a request of them before they leave. In their journey into the heart of darkness—or brightness, Chris Menges' cinematography seeming overexposed at times—the land looks so timeless it's jarring when a ringing cell phone or the beeping from an open vehicle door jolts us back into the 21st century.
An impressive directing debut for Tommy Lee Jones from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is more about friendship than politics but it should appeal to anyone who ever got a lump in their throat listening to Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)."
Speaking of songs, there are two by Roger Miller among the varied American and Mexican pop tunes on the soundtrack, but not the one that would have been most appropriate: "One Dyin' and a-Buryin'."
Steve Warren is a local actor and film reviewer. His reviews can also be seen weekly in the Sunday Paper.