Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The

dir: Tommy Lee Jones
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Films that don’t immediately jump themselves into a recognisable pigeonhole already have a point or two in their favour, for my money. When films follow formula, I tend to start evaluating the film along the lines of its adherence to or variance from the formula. Whatever happens on screen filters through to me with that lens in use.

When I don’t get what the formula is, or the obvious destination point, I’m already more interested than usual. Because such a scenario makes me wonder what is going to happen next, as opposed to generally being able to predict it.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is not a great film. It has some great scenery, gorgeous cinematography, and some interesting characters. Its greatest advantage is that it has a script by Guillermo Arriaga.

Arriaga usually collaborates with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, so you may be familiar with his work in the form of Amores Perros and 21 Grams, both films I have a lot of time for.

Three Burials has a more linear plot, though it does have significant unannounced flashbacks confusing the viewer every now and then. In connection to the other flicks, it has all its characters wallow about in a mess, dealing with issues of moral complexity, personal failure and redemption.

But it’s not the kind of easy redemption where someone has a mild change of heart and goes from being an unrepentantly selfish yuppie to a less-selfish yuppie who appreciates small town values. This is (at least in its intentions) about the redemption that comes from sacrifice and suffering.

As you might guess from the title, Melquiades Estrada is dead. Or, since he is Mexican, and most of the film’s duration elapses near the Texan – Mexican border, Melquiades es muerto. For most of the film, he is carted about in Weekend at Bernie’s fashion, except he genuinely is a rotting corpse. There are no shortage of shots depicting the decay his body is experiencing, or how foul the circumstances must be for his travelling companions. But, like in Bernie’s, I suspect it was played for humour as well, at least in some parts.

The film’s timeliness cannot be underestimated, what with the States currently making a big deal out of border security and all those pesky 11 million unasked for immigrants. Most of the flick’s protagonists are either Border Patrol personnel, cops or the people trying to illegally cross the border for a better (?) life in the sweet embrace of the American Dream.

The flick doesn’t actually make any political points about the current anti-Mexican purges, the Minutemen patrols (vigilante citizens wanting to do their part to keep America secure) or the proposed Berlin-like wall intended to prevent invasion. It’s more about a friend keeping a promise to another friend, and a man coming to grips with the fact that he is an arsehole, and that he needs to be a better person.

Pete (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs) identifies the body of his friend Melquiades for the cops (redneck supremo Dwight Yoakam), who don’t care. Why don’t they care? Because, now I know you’re going to be surprised, he is just another nameless Mexican wetback.

He takes the death of his friend hard. In his determination to figure out what happened, he decides to fulfil Melquiades’ wish to be buried back in his home town of Jimenez, across the border. Also to visit some Old Testament punishment on his killer.

The flick isn’t a murder mystery, or a revenge flick; we know pretty quickly who killed Melquiades, and we also know that for Pete to remain a sympathetic character, he can’t just gut the killer like the pig that he is.

The Border Patrol guy responsible for seeing that Melquiades has had his last taco and committed adultery for the last time, is Mike (Barry Pepper). Mike is a boorish grunt of a man who enjoys his job a little bit too much. But Melquiades’ death is not as the result of malice or brutality. And if the law doesn’t see fit to punish an unrepentant Mike, who, based on a sex scene with his bored, ethereal white trash wife (January Jones) doesn’t believe in foreplay either, who is Tommy Lee Jones to complain?

He’s the man with the gun, and the plan. The three of them, Pete, Mike and Melquiades, embark on a journey back to Mexico. It’s meant to be ironic because most people are trying to get smuggled in to the States, not out of it. Which I guess it is.

There is a lot of humour of the distinctly black kind (the kind I, and I know this will surprise many of you, really like), whether it be the circumstance of self-flagellation over a copy of Hustler that precedes Melquiades’ death, or Pete’s attempts to keep ants off the corpse with salt, alcohol or fire. The humour does work well, but it somewhat detracts from the seriousness of the situation. Maybe that was the point.

Jones clearly wanted to get the feel and look of some of the ye olde worldy westerns in his directorial debut. Some scenes seemed like homages to Johns Huston and Ford, or some of Sam Peckinpah’s work. I even thought he resurrected and rogered the ghost of David Lean for a bit of Lawrence of Arabia as well. All I can say is that it is a better directorial performance than acting performance.

I like Tommy Lee Jones, to be sure, to be sure, but I think that as an actor he’s as limited in range as Harold Bishop from the soap opera Neighbours. That’s not to insult dear old Harold, because I believe he also does pantomimes over in Britain in the off-season, showing what a true renaissance man he can be. But the truth is that both men have found (or been forced into) their niche, and they aren’t getting out of it for any reason.

Maybe it comes down to looks, or disposition, or type-casting. Whatever it is, Jones seems to play essentially the same character in everything he stars in, with the same dialogue delivery. There’s a little more variation than usual in this one, because he has several scenes that don’t involve being a hard-ass that knows everything. Many of those scenes work, work a treat in fact, and make this a bit better than average cinematic experience.

There are deranged, emotional moments that aren’t over the top but are quite strange, and I enjoyed them. They have some interactions with an old blind man, which has a quite poignant resolution, with some strange after-effects.

Pete pines for something more than just fulfilling a dead man’s request, and when we see him drunkenly pursue it, he seems more real than just a template character, and we feel sorry for him.

He is flawed, even more flawed than the man he seeks to punish, who is alternately blank or like a disobedient teenager. Pete’s marbles, as well, might not be all there. The way it manifests itself maintains just enough ambiguity for the film’s resolution to have added emotional texture, probably more than it deserves.

We see scenes between Pete and Melquiades (when he was still illegally breathing stolen American air), which are gentle and don’t try overly hard to depict their friendship as some Brokeback love of the ages or some macho arm-wrestle in between drunken hugs and the phrase “I love you, man”, muttered with choked voice in between hearty backslaps.

They were just two mates, two buddies who worked, drank, laughed and whored together, and Pete wants to honour his buddy. The perfect friendship, in other words, ruined by a hasty moment of interrupted masturbation. Like most friendships, I guess.

Whilst it seems like the film is about Mike’s redemption, I suspect it was probably more about Pete’s. And along the way, as Melquiades’ corpse is used and abused in shameful ways, between those three burials that his rotting remnants endure, enough of a decent story is told to warrant at least some of my time and money.

7 times they’ve tried to bury me and I’ve just kept coming back out of 10

“Well, someone’s got to pick strawberries” – give me your wretched, your poor, your huddled masses, and I’ll get them to work less than minimum wage, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.