An interesting thing has been happening to the Western. The genre has essentially been dead for the last 30 years, having had its original subject — the elemental struggle between good men and evil men — usurped by the action spectacle, which has the added elements of destructive car chases and huge explosions and thus offers a more satisfying catharsis to the violence-craving, zero-attention-span portion of the contemporary audience. Having had its hat handed to it, the Western skulks around the edges of Hollywood, gimpy and shamefaced, hurt that audiences no longer respond to its old tricks. But once in a while it makes an attempt to work its way back into the collective imagination, often in a new, more grown-up form. The few filmmakers who still care enough about the genre to make use of it have repurposed the Western as an arena in which more complex and ambiguous moral dramas play out. In Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, it took the form of a bizarre metaphysical picaresque; in Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim, a loose adaptation of Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, it was a place in which human folly was magnified by time and circumstance into tragedy; in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, it provided a context for examining the damage done by untenable attempts at living a myth. In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the new film directed and co-produced by, and starring, Tommy Lee Jones, the West is both the mythic place it was and the contentious, divisive border that it is, a place where a man is measured by his loyalty and endurance and where race and nationality both separate people and connect them.
In addition to his other work on the film, Jones had an uncredited hand in developing the screenplay with Guillermo Arriaga, who in the past has mostly worked with director Alejandro González Iñárritu (on Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and a short film for BMW). It’s a fruitful collaboration; Jones has tempered Arriaga’s excesses of lugubriousness and timeline-fracturing, injecting the film with a healthy dose of black humor and a structure that, if still nonsequential, is at least intelligible. The film opens with a number of short, staccato scenes in seemingly random order, but it grows increasingly linear, so that the second half is told almost entirely straight. (Jones credits the editor, Roberto Silvi, with reshuffling the scenes into a more coherent order.) The story is still recognizably Arriaga’s though: It has his obsession with chance and fate and the question of whether they’re one and the same. And it maintains some of his weaknesses — his time-trickery makes it harder to get a read on a character, harder to connect with them emotionally. In his scripts, you may find that the introductory scene that ordinarily would create empathy in the first 10 minutes comes in the movie’s last half-hour. In this case, the problem is that we mostly know the title character as a corpse; we have little opportunity to understand him or the friendship he has with Jones’ character.
What we do know about Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is that he’s an illegal from Coahila who shows up at a West Texas ranch looking for work. The ranch foreman is Pete Perkins (Jones), who immediately takes a shine to the penniless immigrant and offers him a job. As they go about the business of ranching, a bond forms between the two men. Pete nicknames his friend “Mel” and seems to see him as a surrogate son; he looks after him and tries to show him a good time, setting him up with a married-but-available local woman for a tryst. Mel is right at home when he’s working on the ranch, but in town he’s timorous with anxiety. He’s terrified of being picked up by the border patrol, and when Pete introduces him to his “date,” he’s so anxious he can’t work the key to the motel-room door and too shy to go inside; the woman has to pull him into room.
Though this is Jones’ first attempt at directing a feature (he previously directed and co-wrote the TV movie The Good Old Boys), his work is solid, in part because he knows this place and these people so well. The Three Burials was shot in West Texas (partly on Jones’ own ranch) and along the Mexican border. The cinematographer, the great Chris Menges, gets beautiful images of the rocky scrub and desert landscapes, balancing handheld immediacy with composed, elegant panning shots, but he also does a great job of capturing the grim interiors of the cheap houses and run-down public buildings where the early parts of the film take place. Though Jones is a Texan both by birth and by choice and likes to play the humble man of the people, he’s not above mocking his neighbors for their tacky behavior. He shows us foul-mouthed children screaming in the streets, a fat lady waddling around in a bikini, and one of the funniest sex scenes I can recall: A woman is in her kitchen watching a very bad soap opera when her husband walks in feeling frisky. She makes a half-hearted attempt to rebuff his advances but relents and lets him bend her over the counter. She continues watching TV while he grinds to his almost immediate climax. She barely notices.
Jones’ Texas is a place divided between Americans and Mexicans and between racists and non-racists. He shows us some strange examples of cultural boundaries being crossed, such as the group of Mexicans who sit next to a campfire in the mountains watching an American soap opera (the same one from the sex scene) though they don’t understand English, or the old, blind American who listens to Mexican radio but doesn’t understand a word of Spanish — he just likes the way it sounds. It’s Pete, who straddles all these worlds, who is the hero. Pete speaks fluent Spanish, hires mostly Mexican vaqueros, and often identifies with Mexicans rather than Anglos. In one scene, angry at a white man, Pete calls him a gringo. The character is largely autobiographical for Jones, who also speaks fluent Spanish and who befriended Arriaga after seeing Amores Perros and developed the idea for The Three Burials out of their conversations about the differences and similarities between Jones’ Texas and Arriaga’s Mexico. The film takes inspiration from Mexican filmmaking in its look, its emotional texture, and even its sound; Marco Beltrami’s remarkable score uses traditional instruments and draws from Mexican styles.
Jones brings a plangent authenticity to Pete, who’s a liberal update on the western man of myth, the last decent man in town, and the only one who cares about Mel’s death. On the surface, Pete seems unemotional and pragmatic but, underneath, unnoticed even by him, is a powerful streak of romanticism. The film’s true pragmatist is Rachel (Melissa Leo, who was Benicio Del Toro’s wife in 21 Grams), a married waitress who carries on affairs with both Pete and his antithesis, the cowardly, impotent sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), who suggests that Mel may have been involved in drug-running and refuses to act on evidence that he was killed by the border patrol. Mel’s killer (revealed early in the film and made obvious in its trailer) is an officer named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has bad manners, a violent temper, and not much in the way of brains.
Pete’s a man of honor, and he has a promise to keep to Mel, so he seeks his own justice, kidnapping Mike and forcing him to help carry the body back to Mexico for a decent burial. It may be some time yet before I can erase the image of Pepper as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler in Battlefield Earth, and I haven’t always been convinced by his performances in other films, but his work here is effective. Part of it may be the way he’s aging: Pepper is only 35, but the years haven’t been particularly kind; his head is all skull, with skin as thin as crepe, so gaunt and drawn he looks like a figure out of Edvard Munch. His face is so hard and yet so fragile that, when he’s banged up a bit, his pain and desperation get to you even though you don’t like him. His journey with Pete is a trial and a lesson on the value of life, and Mike becomes a better man along the way.
All that lesson-learning could be a bit much, but Jones doesn’t go the Crash route; he keeps the focus on the characters and situations rather than getting heavy-handed about bigotry. The film grew out of Jones’ outrage over the 1997 shooting of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr., an American citizen, by camouflaged Marines on an anti-drug mission near the Hernandez family’s property along the banks of the Rio Grande. No one was ever charged in Hernandez’s death. Jones crafted his fictional story as an examination of the culture and the contentious relations along the border, and if he’s gone a bit over-earnest on us, at least he’s allowed for some of the complications of reality. Fittingly, the film’s closing scenes have a deliberate ambiguity, suggesting that perhaps the only thing anyone can be sure of, and all that he needs to be sure of, is that he’s done what he believes to be right.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()