The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

As an actor, Tommy Lee Jones often projects a rugged, tough guy image that matches his terse delivery, and cracked face. What is surprising is how long it took him to direct a film. Jones (Man of the House, The Missing) chooses a film that matches his personality perfectly. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a raw, powerful film about honor and friendship. After watching, one cannot imagine this film without Jones, who also stars. Three Burials is also immediately recognizable as coming from the hand of Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros). Emotions are laid bare, and the plot veers towards the non-linear.

Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo, The Alamo, The Life of David Gale) is a vaquero. He's an illegal immigrant from across the Texas border who is looking for work. Pete Perkins hires him, and the two become very close (but not Brokeback close), and Perkins promises that to bury Estrada across the border in his hometown of Jimenez if he dies. Estrada is a good friend, hard worker, and just wants to make a living so he can someday see his family again. At the same time, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, The 25th Hour, We Were Soldiers) and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Love Actually) move to the area from Ohio. Norton is a trigger-happy Border Patrol agent, and Lou Ann is his bored wife. Norton mistakenly shoots and kills Estrada, who is unceremoniously buried in a field by Belmont (Dwight Yoakam, Wedding Crashers, Hollywood Homicide), the local law enforcement.

Nobody except Perkins cares about Estrada's death. To most people, he was just an illegal immigrant. His death severely affects Perkins, who vows to keep his promise to his friend. He soon discovers that Norton is the one responsible. He kidnaps him, delivers a hellish beat-down, and forces Norton to travel down to Mexico to help him bury Estrada. The rest of the film is a treacherous journey across the desert with Perkins, Norton, and the corpse of Estrada.

Here, Three Burials veers into the allegorical. The journey to Jimenez takes on philosophical meanings for all involved. Perkins will not be able to be a complete man until he fulfills his promise. Doing so will show that he can keep his word, and will allow him to stop grieving. Things are much more serious for Norton, who goes through the emotional wringer. There is potential redemption for him on this journey, but he will have to suffer immensely. It's very easy to dislike the weasely-faced Norton, and Pepper does a good job of making him contemptible. Along the way, they have memorable encounters with an elderly blind man as well as a woman healer. There is much more going on with these encounters than just the dialogue between them. Jones succeeds in using the journey as a glimpse into the souls of these two men. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada won well-deserved Best Actor (Jones) and Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 1 minute, Rated R for language, violence, and sexuality.

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