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Thread: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) - Tommy Lee Jones

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    The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) - Tommy Lee Jones

    The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) - Tommy Lee Jones

    What is it about actor/directors and evocative landscapes? It seems an unavoidable urge for new found auteurs familiar with life in front of the camera to try and evoke the spirit of the great American landscape, all attempting to varying degrees to be some sort of modern John Ford. Not since ironically Ben Stiller has an actor turned director managed to keep a sense of humor. There is always a drastic need to take oneself far too seriously. Then again after the "success" of Jones' Man of the House one wouldn't be surprised that his next film be removed from comedy.

    This directorial debut falls far short of the near mythical first films of Costner, Redford, and Gibson, but it succeeds admirably. The reason is most likely because Jones film is a small and intimately personal one, just as the quest of his Pete is in the film. It is not a spectacle like Braveheart, or an epic political commentary on America's domestic underbelly like Costner's, nor is it the dreadfully tragic critique on middle to upper class life in suburbia that Ordinary People was. The film makes no greater connection to history, to a people, or to an ideology. Instead it is a tale of one man's quest to come through for a good friend.

    The cast is minimal, with Jones and Barry Pepper supplying almost all of the screentime between them. There are others, notably Julio Cedillo as the title character, and Mellissa Leo and January Jones as the only two women of the story. The women however are clearly supporting, and together make up little more than a subplot, and Melquiades is shown almost entirely in flashblack (at least when he was alive).

    The script was written by Guillermo Arriaga, and like his previous 21 Grams and Amores Perros, this two likes to play with a non-linear story. But as we get to decipher what takes place when, Jones changes gears and allows the story after Melquiades death to be told straight through, no more retelling scenes from different points, and no more playing with time. Sure we see glimpses of the live Melquiades but this is nothing more than a temporal cut away, nothing to throw us off balance, as the first act did.

    I do believe I missed a burial somewhere in the story, because he was only technically buried twice in the film, but well maybe I'm missing something, or perhaps there is some figurative burial that I'm supposed to read into. Regardless Three Burials is an overall good debut from any director, and might just mark the career of Jones the revisionist. The film is set in modern times but it certainly envokes the spirit of classic western films, and for that I can applaud his effort, because we don't get too many stories of cowboys (straight ones anyways) this day and age.

    Grade B

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    (Yes, I missed a burial too.) But it's not Jones's debut.

    Jones and Arriaga try a Tex-Mex redemption story and get it pretty damn right

    [ B e w a r e - s p o i l e r s]

    This movie about a Texas ranch hand who steps outside the law so a Mexican friend will have a proper home burial and his killer may expiate his sin comes from the pen of Guillermo Arriaga, the chilango whose writing led to Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Tommy Lee Jones, a Texas good old boy, directed it and stars in it. These two facts would make The Three Burials worth watching and likely to feel authentic, but the movie contains much humor, poetry and truth besides, its wild final journey almost worthy of Cormac McCarthy, the visual poetry of cinematographer Chris Menges standing in for McCarthy's inimitable prose. (Jones owns the movie rights to Cormac McCarthy's savage and likely unfilmable masterpiece, Blood Meridian.)

    Like some of McCarthy's characters Pete Perkins (Jones) and his wetback pal Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) have no families at hand, their rough laconic friendship idealized and set apart by being conducted exclusively in Spanish and based on the shared love of horses and women.

    Arriaga adopts his usual split-narrative form to set up a movie whose riveting and transformative journey across wild lands into Mexico later turns increasingly linear and focused. We begin by sliding back and forth between the idealized, simplified friendship, the locale (a desolate but beautiful stretch of west Texas near the Mexican border), a café where two women are found -- the cook's wife, the weathered but still sexy Rachel (Melissa Leo), who sleeps with both the sheriff (Dwight Yoakim) and Pete on the side, and Lou Ann Norton (January Jones), the bored idle wife of new hothead Border Patolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a lean, intense fellow who's to become the villain and the changeling of the piece. Rachel has a nice thing going, but Lou Ann pines for the malls of Cincinnati and can think of little to do but sit and smoke.

    Segments cut back and forth to show arrival of the Nortons and purchase of a large mobile home. We see Melquiades dead, laid in the ground. The obnoxious sheriff has trysts with Rachel, but can't get it up. TV and sex are ironically blended. Mike takes Lou Ann from behind, getting off quickly after a long day's work while staring at a bickering soap opera on a little TV. He gets in trouble for grabbing and beating some border crossers who tried to run off. He's about to have an al fresco hand-job to a skin mag while on duty when Mel's shot aimed at a coyote zings by him. The gruesome and the comic consort with the cruel and the kind. The Northern Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico becomes a character too although, as Lee has said, one that "doesn't take direction." In that wilderness Mike and Pete come to a bunch of Mexicans watching the same bickering soap on a little TV hitched to a pickup, understanding nothing, like the aged blind man (Levon Helm) who listens to Spanish radio all day without comprehending a word.

    Arriaga likes coincidence to the point of the far-fetched and also relishes disconnects: the snake-cure lady is someone Norton gave a broken nose to. Pete and his adversary the sheriff improbably both sleep with Rachel. One time Pete and Mel have motel sex with Rachel and, unexpectedly, Lou Ann. In Mexico, the Spanish-speaking Pete begins bumbling in English to everybody; and when Melquiades' home is tracked down, it seems a mirage.

    If Jones has a lived-in and comfy feel to him as a Texas border ranch hand/cowboy, it's because he's from there, lives there now training polo teams and (as he told an interviewer for the LA Weekly "raising kids; raising cattle; raising, training and selling horses." But good 'ole Jones also acted in New York after rooming with Al Gore at Harvard. He's a man of enough culture to abhor the term "Western," talk of minimalist Donald Judd's influence on the film's visual compositions (the Judd museum happens to be at Marfa, Texas), and point out how the lighting in the snakebite cure scene's based on the neon pieces of Dan Flavin (it strikingly is). He's obviously aware of McCarthy. Arriago must be aware of B. Traven. There's something very Traven in Melquiades' lying about where he comes from so when the goal is reached, there's no there there. Like McCarthy's Border Trilogy, Three Burials makes the journey into Mexico a voyage to truth and older values and also wildness, insanity, and purgation. It's a surprising journey with extreme experience and humor. Unlikeable but pitiable as the wired, uptight Mike, Pepper turns into a whimperer and a screamer whose suffering intensity carries the narrative from tragi-comic ramble (and exposition of racisim) to redemptive myth. Set against Mike's fear and hysteria Pete's smiling good humor -- Jones's trademark rote mellowness -- may seem too pat. Still, the two tend to balance each other out. The snakebite that poisons and crazes Norton is almost crudely symbolic of the evil that's got to be worked out of him. Pepper gets the final cathartic moment of the movie.

    To carry through the horrific/comic-to-redemptive modulation, the camera keeps its distance at the right times, but still, lugging a purple corpse, combing your dead friend's disintegrating hair and dowsing him with salt and antifreeze to keep him from rotting or getting eaten by ants as you force the kidnapped border patrolman who killed him to be your servant along the way are improbable wonders. More fable than realistic tale, The Three Burials requires suspension of disbelief if Pete's going to seem to you as just and wise as he's foolish and crazy. The chopped-up narration can lead to confusion: some of us can't for the life of us remember seeing more than two burials.

    The Mexico City-born Arriaga isn't always a convincing writer but he sure is an interesting one. He provided Jones with great material to work with but it's Jones, the good cast, and cinematographer Menges who give the movie its wry authenticity.

    (Jones' directorial debut was the 1995 made for TV Good Old Boys starring him, with Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Eve Calloway, Sam Shepard, and Sissy Spacek, among others. This is the second movie he has both directed and starred in.)

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    Well if we only count theatrical features, I'm still right, but I didn't know about that film, there I go talking without validation again.

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    I know what you mean, but everybody considers the other one his first film, even if we didn't hear of it. (By "everybody" I mean IMDb and the reviews I saw that bothered to bring up the subject.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-20-2006 at 02:39 PM.

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    The last great film of 2005 finally opened in most of the country in February 2006. Based on the reviews I've seen, it'd have made more top 10 lists had it been seen earlier. Chris' review goes a long way towards explaining why I like it so. I wasn't surprised to learn Jones has listed Peckinpah amongst his influences, given how Melquiades reminded me so much of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. One of the most moving aspects of Melquiades is the depiction of the strong bonds of same-sex friendships, between Rachel and Lou Ann, and of course between Pete and Melquiades.
    I most definitely don't share wpqx's taste in movies when he refers to the first films of Gibson, Redford and Costner as "near mythical" and states Melquiades falls "far short". The first films of those actors-turned-directors (Ordinary People, Dances with Wolves, Man Without a Face) are certainly worth watching, but Jones' theatrical feature debut is a richer, more ambitious and more ambiguous piece of cinema. Of course, that's only my opinion.

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    What I meant is the films of those other actor-directors (through Beatty in there too) were more ambitious. I think Jones feature is a much more intimate and personal film, whereas Costner and Gibson (at least in terms of Braveheart) were trying to go for glory on a much grander scale. I don't hold that Braveheart is a certified masterpiece but I lliked the film a hell of a lot the first time I saw it (granted I was 16, so you can't be too surprised). I do see the similarities between this and Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, shame in many ways that more people aren't chanelling Peckinpah, I fear his brand of films are going to steadily become more and more out of date.

    As a side note, I will possibly argue to the death that Ordinary People is the best film of the 80's.

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    I know that a lot of people have talked about Pekinpah in connnection with The Three Burials... but I mentioned Cormac McCarthy's novels instead because I know them better, don't know much about Pekinpah and have not watched him for a good long time. Plus McCarthy is certainly of interest to Jones, since ha bought the rights to McCarthy's masterpiece Blood Meridian and wrote a screenplay for it with studio approval, but the studio however rejected as too violent and bloody. Jones's comment: They don't know the novel I guess, and they don't know me. I'm not sure of the logic of mentioning Gibson, Redford, and Costner. I have no use for Dances with Wolves. I didn't like Braveheart at all. I couldn't take it seriously. But I wasn't sixteen. The Academy liked it. Gibson has since alienated me completely. Redford is iconic as an actor and Ordinary People is a very fine movie so I can agree with wpqx on that.

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    Originally posted by wpqx
    I do see the similarities between this and Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, shame in many ways that more people aren't chanelling Peckinpah, I fear his brand of films are going to steadily become more and more out of date.

    By "brand of films" do you mean westerns? You're probably right. They've become almost extinct for decades. But maybe Brokeback and Melquiades prove the genre will not completely disappear. Then there's Wenders' soon-to-be-released Don't Come Knocking. Some artists continue to find fresh stories within a western context, it seems. As far as Peck, I'm very excited to finally get to watch (on dvd) his The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Anyone's seen it?

    As a side note, I will possibly argue to the death that Ordinary People is the best film of the 80's.

    There I go disagreeing again. It's a good movie, but I can think of several movies released in 1980 that I like a lot more: Resnais' My American Uncle, Scorsese's Raging Bull, Kurosawa's Kagemusha, Jaime de Arminan's The Nest, Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven, Polanski's Tess. And several others I like at least as much: Demme's Melvin and Howard, Malle's Atlantic City, Lynch's The Elephant Man, Rush's The Stunt Man, Ivan Zulueta's Arrebato, Kubrick's The Shining, Truffaut's The Last Metro, Breaker Morant,...

    I feel the same way about Braveheart and Dances with Wolves. They are good and I'm glad I saw them, but I didn't find them memorable or particularly special. I guess I would fit somewhere in the middle between your admiration for these two movies and Chris' opinions about them.

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