Saturday, June 24, 2006
  DVD Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a movie about death, revenge, sex, insanity, and country music. It's not the only movie I've seen about death, revenge, sex, insanity, and country music… Oliver Stone's black comedy U-Turn is about all of those things as well. But, Three Burials isn't a comedy, black or otherwise, although there are a several funny moments in the film.

Sound confusing? It is. Three Burials is at times disjointed, rambling, perplexing and preposterous. It's also shrewd, substantial, evocative and downright disconcerting. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a whole lot of things. It's one of the most demanding and uncompromising films I've seen in quite a long time… and the amazing thing is, the damn thing works. It engrossed me and involved me emotionally. It made me examine some of my own beliefs. It is one of the better films I've seen in quite a long time.

Tommy Lee Jones stars in Three Burials, and he also directed the film, making it the first feature he's directed in a thirty-six year Hollywood career. The movie was written by Guillermo Arriaga, and if you've seen the other films he's written, such as 21 Grams and Amores Perros, you probably already know to expect non-linier story telling. It's as though Arriaga writes his scripts and then throws the pages into the air and numbers them in the order that he picks them up. The scenes in his movies come at you randomly, with no regard for a timeline whatsoever. In fact, part of the appeal of 21 Grams (for those who like it) is trying to figure out exactly when in the chronology any given scene is happening.

Three Burials isn't nearly as disjointed as 21 Grams. Flaschback scenes are clearly flashbacks… scenes set in the story's current time have an immediacy that makes their chronology clear to the viewer. I'll credit Jones as a director for making those distinctions clear without losing the effect that Arriaga must have been trying to achieve. It's as though Arriaga as a story-teller likes to give you some information, give you time to think you know what it means, and then give you older information that changes your perspective about what you've recently seen. As a director, Jones uses subtle touches… changes in the movie's color pallet and slightly forced perspectives… to make it clear exactly where you are with regard to the internal chronology of the story. It's puzzling at times; and sometimes frustrating… but ultimately, it makes for a rewarding movie-watching experience.

The story itself is fairly simple: Tommy Lee Jones plays Pete, a Texas ranch hand who is close friends with Melquiades, an illegal alien from Mexico. In a moment of haste, a border patrol officer shoots and kills the illegal alien. The murder leads to a botched attempt at a cover-up and an apathetic response from the local police force. Pete loses faith in the system and decides to exact his own type of justice. The story is further complicated by an absolutely passionless love triangle and a half-hearted promise that Pete made to his Mexican friend… a promise that becomes important to him after his friend's death.

There are, of course, a number of places where a film like this could have gone wrong. The issue of illegal aliens is certainly on the forefront of all of our minds these days, and I expected Three Burials to ultimately make some sort of political statement about the issue. Never once, though, did the movie drift into propaganda. The focus of this story is on the people involved; on the things that drive them, the things that connect them, and domino effect that our actions can have on each other. God bless Tommy Lee Jones. He could have built his story around political talking points. He did not.

At it's heart, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a movie about revenge, a subject that seems to haunt Guillermo Arriaga, given the subject of so much of his work. Like in 21 Grams, Arriaga uses this film to ask his viewers to really examine their own feelings about revenge. Is it ever warranted? If so, when? What does it do to those who exact it? What does it do to those who witness it? There are scenes in the movie, scenes involving violent vengeance, that really bothered me. In fact, not since The Passion of the Christ have I seen instances of onscreen violence that upset me as much as some of the images in Three Burials did. That is not a slam on the movie. Violence should be upsetting. This movie reminds us of that, and maybe in doing so, reminds us a little bit of how valuable life really is.

Jones, by the way, has never been better on screen, either. Pete might be the character he was "born to play," as they say. It was only in retrospect, when I was reflecting on how much I'd enjoyed the film, that I realized that I'd forgotten that I was watching a well-known movie star on the screen. I wasn't thinking about Tommy Lee Jones while I was watching the film. I was thinking about Pete.

The other actors in the film are in fine form, too. Dwight Yoakam has found his niche as an actor… nobody does a better job at bringing small-time sleaze-balls to life than Yoakam does. He must have quite a well of experience with real a-holes to draw on, because when he plays one, he gets it exactly right. Melissa Leo and January Jones are also both very good as two of the women in the story's small Texas town… one who knows exactly who she is and how she fits in, the other unsure of herself and everything around her. Levon Helm even turns up in a brief role as an old blind man... a role that manages to be comical, bizarre, and heartbreaking all at once. Jones had to know during post production that Helm was close to stealing his whole movie out from under him.

For me, the real delight of the film was seeing Barry Pepper have the chance to do good work in a movie again. Pepper caught my attention in Saving Private Ryan, but he never seemed to get another really meaty role after that film. Pepper has finally gotten a good role in Three Burials and he was up to the task. I did have one complaint with his performance, though. In one scene, a sexual encounter between his character and his wife in the kitchen struck me as unintentionally comical. Pepper seemed to be hamming it up a bit. I couldn't help but feel that the scene was supposed to be desperate and pitiful. Instead, that scene got an uncomfortable laugh out of me and, momentarily, broke the movie's spell.

Three Burials is often a difficult movie to watch, and it might ultimately prove frustrating to people who are dependent on conventional story arcs. This is a movie with a central conflict that comes out of nowhere and goes to unpredictable places. It's not light entertainment, and it's sometimes downright unpleasant. Don't rent it if you're looking for an escape. But if you'd like to spend two hours considering provocative ideas and internally challenging some of your own beliefs, Three Burials might be the right film for you.

How could a film with both Melissa Leo and TLJones be anything but gritty, evocative and good?
I think Barry Pepper will have the stink of Battlefield Earth on him for a long time.
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