I can’t remember the last time I watched a western, so Tommy Lee Jones’ theatrical directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was a nice change of pace. Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a Texas cattle rancher who is crushed when his employee and close friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) is found dead in the desert. Local law enforcement doesn’t do much to investigate, but Pete is led to believe a border patrolman shot him down. He finds the culprit and forces him along on a journey to bury his friend in his small hometown in rural Mexico.
With a nonlinear mode of storytelling and an easygoing pace, Three Burials is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film but requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer. Several characters are downright despicable, and even the supposed “good” guys have questionable tactics and motives. I enjoyed Jones in the lead role, he seems weighed down by this unbearable sense of disappointment with the world, and goes a little nuts trying to make at least one thing right. Barry Pepper’s border guard is a disgusting asshole with little room for retribution but you know the film’s going to try it anyway, and even the kind and hardworking Melquiades is in doubt as questions about his past come to light. The women are a bit flaky, but I did like Melissa Leo as the gruff waitress Rachel. January Jones does her sad, pretty housewife thing and that’s nice, I guess, though so cliche. At least it passes the Bechdel Test!
This is a harsh film. The terrain, the people, the story: everything is gritty and mean, which fits in well with its western genre trappings. In many ways it is a blunt commentary on America’s approach to Latin American immigrants and the multi-layered issues those living near either side of the border face. It is also a grudging look at basic human understanding (and lack thereof) when set against deep-rooted selfishness and prejudice. The script is fairly strong (penned by frequent Iñárritu-collaborator Guillermo Arriaga) but the pace is so meandering that I wish parts had been cut down or shortened. I know that’s not the kind of movie Jones was trying to make but for my own tastes it lost me at some parts.
Still a solid film, though.