The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

on December 14, 2005 by Sheri Linden
In the contemporary Western "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," unfussy filmmaking well serves a tale of male honor that's sentimental at its core. Tommy Lee Jones' impressive big-screen directorial debut received two prizes at the Cannes festival: for the screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, and for Jones' laconic, deeply felt lead performance as a cowboy avenging a friend's murder. The helmer's subtle work with his excellent cast and Chris Menges' widescreen vistas of merciless West Texas landscapes help to temper the story's excesses. Moving from the first burial -- a shallow grave -- to the final hard-won act of redemption, the script at times overstates its themes of suffering and atonement. But unlike the Arriaga-penned "21 Grams," which fractured time to no particular purpose, this film does only a little fancy footwork with chronology before settling down to straight-ahead storytelling, enriched by character-based humor and nicely observed oddities.

Rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) is a brokenhearted man after his good friend's body is discovered in the desert. Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), an illegal Mexican immigrant who worked for Pete, was a surrogate son to the solitary man; conversing in Spanish, they had an easy rapport. Evidence points to a Border Patrol agent as the shooter, but Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) has no intention of pursuing the case, instead quickly burying the "wetback" in the town cemetery. Diner waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), whose extramarital activities include liaisons with both Pete and Belmont, provides the info Pete needs to take justice into his own hands. He kidnaps Mike Norton, a new and often brutal member of the Border Patrol (outstanding work from Barry Pepper), and forces him to disinter Mel's body. They set off across the border on horseback to return Mel to his family and bury him in Jiménez, the hometown he so lovingly described to Pete.

The film's second hour is devoted to the hellish journey of the unholy trinity -- avenger, accidental killer and rotting corpse. Subjected to extreme physical suffering as they cross brush and desert, the handcuffed and recalcitrant Norton becomes a sort of unwilling martyr figure. Pepper wisely underplays the transformation from a man who thinks nothing of breaking the nose of a young Mexican woman trying to cross the border to one capable of asking for forgiveness. Supporting performances are strong, from January Jones as the neglected wife of Norton (their marriage summed up in a darkly comic sex scene) to Levon Helm as a blind man subsisting in isolation. Writer Arriaga cameos as a TV-watching cowboy. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio César Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo and Levon Helm. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Written by Guillermo Arriaga. Produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam and Tommy Lee Jones. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. English- and Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated R for language, violence and sexuality. Running time: 121 min

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