Film Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Winner of the Best Actor and Best Screenplay prizes at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival (for Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga respectively), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a deliriously rich and complex work for those who do not mind taking an appreciation of cinema to a more abstract plane. It’s also, amazingly, only the first directorial effort from Tommy Lee Jones.

The basic framework for the story is deceptively simple. Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), a migrant worker who crossed the border from Mexico into Texas, is killed in a careless shooting. The perpetrator is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), an inept, socially stunted border patrolman whose life consists of little more than taking masterbatory reveries (both literal and metaphorical) from the stifling boredom omnipresent in the shitheel town.

Melquiades’s close friend, a ranch hand named Pete Parkins (Tommy Lee Jones), is striken with grief over the murder, and when the local law enforcement turns a blind eye to the killing (since Melquiades represents an unwelcome foreigner to be ignored), Parkins decides to take justice into his own hands. This setup sounds familiar, and even clichéd, on paper. Murderous retribution, however, is not on Parkins’ mind. He has a plan both elaborate and symbolic, and he wants Mike awake and cognizant for every step of the way. As the plan unfolds, the film leads us on a fascinating journey that criss-crosses genres, archetypes, and motifs.

Any viewers seeking a standard narrative — and unwilling to put any effort into examining the significance of various character arcs, shot compositions, and plays on race and gender roles — would do well to avoid this film. As an example, the characters of Rachel (Melissa Leo) and Norton’s wife, Lou Ann (January Jones) — who represent the primary female figures in the story — are given deliberate depth and attention at various points in the story.

Not surprisingly, they’re most honest and forthright when away from any men. Otherwise, they are primarily sex objects, playthings to distract the men from the redundancy of their lives. Just watch the perfect choreography of the scene in which Lou Ann watches a soap opera in the kitchen before her husband enters.

In addition to this objectification of women, the film necessarily addresses the xenophobic and racist treatment of immigrants, not only through Melquiades, but through a young Mexican woman who has two encounters with Norton, the second of which elicits a deliciously perverse satisfaction.

As with his writing for the major successes of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros and 21 Grams), Arriaga’s script distorts chronology, which will frustrate some viewers, but titillate those who sense the way in which his distortions enhance narrative impact and illuminate the nuances of each major character.

This is a stunning directorial debut filled with evocative imagery, unexpected humor, and a definitive, authoritative cinematic vision. With cinematographer Chris Menges, Jones recalls the hallucinatory feel of abstract westerns such as Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970).

Other influences present include the morbid humor of underground zombie flicks and the psychologically probing cinematic dissections from the 70s (in this case, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show feels most akin).

The acting is uniformally excellent, the story both playful and powerful, and the overall impact intensely satisfying, lingering long after the film concludes.

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