BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE #13

BORDER TIME:  THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA
a commentary by Tony McRae

"The Wild Bunch."  Now there's a title for a western.  But what about "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"?  Why not simply "Three Burials"?   Now that's more like it.  Could be a Sam Peckinpah film.  Not that Sam wasn't above using zany titles himself, like "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."

Well, it turns out "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a perfect title for director Tommy Lee Jones who's interested in people, in loyalty and friendship, virtues that are at the heart of this movie.

I couldn't help thinking of  Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" while watching this movie.  Not only does the U.S.-Mexican border play a significant part in both movies, but there's also the loyalty angle.  The Wild Bunch go back into the stronghold of the warlord Mapache to rescue Angel.  They have no chance to rescue one of their own but they're going to try.  You could say they're crazy.  The same label is put on Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones)--who by the way could have fit in nicely with the Wild Bunch--and it may be true in a sense, that is, if you don't think that loyalty trumps just about everything else.  That was the Wild Bunch's credo, and its Pete Perkins' too.    

The plot is simple.  Melquiades Estrada is shot and killed in the desert outside Van Horn, Texas, near the Mexican boarder.  He's been working as an illegal for several years on a ranch herding cattle alongside an older cowpoke Pete Perkins.  They've become friends.  Best friends. (1) 

The man who shot Melquiades works for the Border Patrol.  It may have been an accident, but this guy is a hothead and just plain bad.  Instead of reporting the Mexican's death he buries him in a shallow grave.  The body is discovered, and the authorities reinter it in a municipal grave.  Pete not only grieves for the loss of his friend, but he's angry over another matter.  He had promised Melquiades that if he, Melquiades, were to die, he would return his body to his childhood home in Mexico(2).  Pete learns that it was Mike Norton, a Border Patrolman, who shot and buried Melquiades out in the desert.  He forces Norton to dig up the body, then handcuffs him and both men take Melquiades Estrada into Mexico.

The movie is divided in two:  the events leading up to Melquiades Estrada's death and subsequent burials, and the trek into Mexico.  The first part is set in and around the Texan border town of Van Horn.  We meet Norton and his young wife Lou Ann (January Jones) whose marriage is dragging them both down (3); Belmont, the town sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and his deputies, and Rachel (Melissa Leo) who with her husband runs the town diner (4).  It's Rachel, who is sleeping with both Pete and Belmont, who tells Pete that Norton shot Melquiades.

Director Jones sets this story in a real place.  We can smell the dust and experience the desolation of a region that has a love/hate relationship with Mexico and the people who are continually attempting to cross over into the United States.  An early scene has a group of Mexicans attempting to slip into the U.S. when they are spotted by the Border Patrol, rounded up and beaten by one of the guards who happens to be Norton.  Two Mexicans, however, escape into Texas. One of the guards says laconically, “Oh well, somebody has to pick the strawberries.”  

This part of the story is told by interspersing flashbacks with the present.  Though the killing and first burial of Melquiades occur before the movie starts, Jones and writer Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams,” “Amores Perros” ) seamlessly weave together past events with the present as though there are no boundaries.  It's a brilliant move; we see past actions primarily from Pete's perspective, and for him time has no real meaning.  In one sense his dead friend is not gone, he is still present, still real.  We experience the friendship between him and Melquiades (sweetly played by Julio Cedillo) with the same direct no-nonsense camera work used throughout.

The second half of the movie is taken up with this epic trip (5).  I use the term epic intentionally.  Though the purpose is mundane--the transportation of a body for burial--in the hands of first-time director Jones the journey is transformed into an act of courage and compassion and, above all, friendship.

There are no flashbacks here.  And no need for them, for Melquiades is actually present throughout the journey, literally present in his corpus which Pete tenderly cares for.  His body takes on a life of its own, has its own personality, its own role in the drama.   Time for Pete becomes inconsequential.  It doesn't matter if the journey takes weeks or longer, since he's taken steps to preserve the body.  He has no job to go back to, no friends.  At one point in a small cantina (6)he calls back to Rachel and asks her to join him.  She kindly declines.

The same cannot be said of Mike Norton.  This is one sorry, messed up, bad individual.  For him this is a trip to hell (7).  And at the end he believes Pete will kill him.  What are his options if he does make it through?  Return to Van Horn?  Probably since he believes his wife will be waiting for him.  But she's had it (8).  She's already packed up and gone.  Back to his border patrol job?  Unlikely.  As played by Barry Pepper, we have no pity for him, even when Pete drags him behind his horse or forces him to do all the dirty work.  Yet he does change.  A bit. The film's last line gives a bit of hope for this miscreant, but the odds are not good. 

This is Tommy Lee Jones' best role in years.  You feel he's gotten deep inside this character so that he doesn't have to act.  He just is (9).  When he learns of Melquiades's death we see no histrionics, only a blighted face experiencing loss.

This movie is about life, its worth and the lengths we can go to make it sacred.

Rated R for language, violence and sexuality.

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