An offbeat, tonal take on the Western, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is best described as soulful and creative, if occasionally scattered and overambitious. Set in rural Texas on the Mexico border, Burials takes on particular moral weight when viewed today (June 2010) in light of the controversial immigration law that Arizona passed a few months back. Jones’ film focuses on Pete Perkins (Jones), a weathered old rancher who forms a peculiar bond with Melquiades Estrada, a Mexican cowboy seeking work. When Estrada is accidentally shot and killed by trigger-happy border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), an enraged Perkins seeks out the murderer and forces him to accompany him on a journey into Mexico to return Estrada’s body to his family, fulfilling a promise he’d made to his friend some time back. Burials serves as a warning towards those thinking that Arizona’s new policy can be implemented seamlessly and without innocent casualties: give an uneducated grunt a sniper rifle, and this is what you get. On a wider scope, Jones does an excellent job of portraying each character as severely flawed and without meaning, a perfect embodiment of the terrain they inhabit. There’s Norton’s wife Lou Ann (January Jones), a perky pigtailed blond who quickly grows bored with her husband scouring the fields all day, and without any entertainment beyond the mall, quickly realizes the severe limitations of the man she chose and life she’s leading. There’s waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who fucks half the town—she’s in her mid-late 40′s, by the way—despite (because of?) being married: her evident distaste for her boxed-in life conjures up Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, among others. And in addition to the shooting of Estrada, Mike Norton flashes his anger at the world and self-disgust by beating up a few petrified, unarmed immigrants who entered the country, including punching a young lady in the face (a healer, she would later have her revenge, though she first displays a compassion not present in the Texas community). Even a blind hermit who Norton and Perkins meet on their trek fits the bill, begging for them to take his life and put him out of his misery.
Jones deserves some serious props for casting Pepper as Norton: after seeing him brilliantly chomp the scenery as slimy investment banker Frank Slaughtery in Spike Lee’s masterpiece 25th Hour, I could never have pictured him as a trailer-trash Westerner, but he disappears into the role. The cinematography and mood are excellent. Where Burials falters a bit is in its editing: the ambitious flashback-and-forth techniques take away from the film’s cohesion, and it could probably have been tauter if 15 minutes had been shaved. And the ending, while interesting intellectually, lost me emotionally—I was definitely into the Estrada-as-a-martyr direction, and a surprising twist works on some levels, but really took me out of the movie’s rhythm. Still, parts of Burials are quite touching, and the work as a whole is definitely sophisticated: Jones imbues his characters with depth, and they work together on a harmonious level, even when they don’t share the screen. As an actor, Jones doesn’t really stray from his comfort zone, but he gets the job done nicely, and the rest of the supporting cast is stellar. Ultimately, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a nice little film, overlooked by many but blessed with plenty of good traits and a few warts. The strengths are strong enough to easily warrant finding time to check it out.