Superficially, Tommy Lee Jones’ debut theatrical feature as director THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA might seem to have much in common with Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 film BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. Both concern the divide between the United States and Mexico, described by Jones as “one culture severed in two to pretend it’s two cultures”, and both involve macabre road trips with corpses, intact or otherwise. The vastly different motivations behind the lead characters’ actions should provide the first clue as to why these are movies by very different American filmmakers.
Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as grizzled Texan cattle rancher Pete Perkins who takes in Mexican illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo). Much of the film takes place in the dangerous borderline territory between the US and Mexico, the same setting as Cormac McCarthy’s novel BLOOD MERIDIAN as well as his Border trilogy which seem to be heavy influences. For the first hour the narrative is highly non-linear; we are shown flashbacks to the developing camaraderie between Pete and Melquiades at the same time as we are shown the young Mexican’s murder at the hands of border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his abandonment in a shallow grave (the first burial of the title). Links between supporting characters only become evident as the narrative jumps around and fills in the gaps. This is a technique Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga used to great effect in AMORES PERROS (2000) and to slightly extraneous effect in his follow-up 21 GRAMS (2003). Here it works perfectly. Evoking Kurosawa’s RASHOMON the murder is initially told from the perspective of the patrolman, who thinks he is under attack when he hears gunshots too close for comfort, then the victim, who is later shown only to be shooting at coyotes menacing his flock of goats. Pete’s outrage at local law enforcement’s lack of effort to investigate the murder of a “wetback” leads him to track down the patrolman himself, whereupon he forces Norton at gunpoint to dig up his friend’s body from his pauper’s grave (the second burial) and undertake a long journey by horseback to the village of Jimenez, Mexico, a place “filled with beauty” where Pete had always promised to bury his friend Melquiades should he die on American soil.
From here the action moves from the towns and trailer parks to the roaming outdoors of the prairies. In one scene the pursuing sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) is poised with a rifle on a rocky hilltop to take down Pete Perkins, who is leading his posse of mules, kidnapped patrolmen and dead Mexicans through the valley below. It could almost be a scene straight out of THE SEARCHERS, until the sheriff’s mobile phone interrupts them with a call from his usual prostitute asking whether he intends to keep their afternoon appointment.
Pepper’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. Though he is no cold-blooded killer he is a mindless thug who beats the Mexican border-runners he finds trying to cross his patch mercilessly. His expressions of disbelief and defiance as Pete kidnaps him and makes him dig up the corpse are like some kind of neo-realist Oliver Hardy, if the consequences of standing on nails and falling down stairs were shown to be real. His eventual confession and redemption when they find the “village” of Jimenez and Pete instructs him to bury Melquiades for the third and final time is both believable and heart-breaking. There are strong supporting performances from January Jones as the patrolman’s wife, who doesn’t stop watching TV during sex and spends all her days in Rachel’s (Melissa Leo) diner because she has nothing else to do. Rachel herself is having affairs with as many local men as she can get her hands on just because she is bored. From the fleeting glimpses we get, Pete and Melquiades’ relationship seems to be the only one in the film built on trust and a genuine liking for each other.
It could be said that the film is something of a shaggy dog story. Normally this is meant in a negative way but when done properly, like, for example, much of the Coen brothers’ output or David Lynch’s THE STRAIGHT STORY which almost uses the phrase as the title, it can remind you that a good story should be as much about the journey. The film ends with Tommy Lee Jones’ protagonist riding off into the distance having set the patrolman free. Even after being dragged through hell by this man, Norton calls after him “Are you going to be all right?”. Like the closing shot of John Wayne striding away from us through that doorway, the question is left hanging in the air.