Plot Boorish border patrol officer Mike Norton (Pepper) semi-accidentally shoots an illegal immigrant (Cedillo) dead. Local law enforcement turns a blind eye, but the dead man’s buddy (Tommy Lee Jones) has other ideas, forcing Norton on a bizarre pilgrimage to bury the body in Mexican soil.
There’s something about border country that brings out the best in filmmakers. From Touch Of Evil to The Wild Bunch, from Lone Star to Kill Bill, directors at the height of their powers are drawn to the inherently dramatic, culture-clash-heavy location. Welles, Peckinpah, Sayles and Tarantino might make for illustrious company but, judging by this stunning film, Tommy Lee Jones deserves his place alongside them.Indeed, comparisons have been made with Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, but if anything, The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is the more humane, emotionally engaging work.
As anyone familiar with the career of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) would expect, the initial ‘modern revenge Western’ premise is merely the framework for a subtle, involving exploration of friendship, loyalty, sex, death and forgiveness — all the good stuff. Arriaga’s fragmented style allows the audience to experience Melquiades’ (Julio Cedillo) life when he’s already dead, flavouring the warmth and charm of his scenes alongside best pal Pete (Jones himself, marvellous) with an underlying sadness and sense of fate. Similarly, we know Officer Norton is a killer-to-be when we witness his callous attitude both to his wife and the “wetbacks” he brutalises at every opportunity.
Great writing is, of course, a gift to actors, and every member of the cast excels. January Jones deserves special praise for making a neglected young woman credible despite her luminous good looks, while Barry Pepper outperforms every expectation you could have as the weak, mean Norton. A sex scene between the two manages to be heartbreaking, soulless and bleakly funny, as husband interrupts toenail-cutting to improve wife’s self-esteem by bending her over the kitchen worktop for all of 30 seconds. It’s behaviour like this which sees Norton dismissed as “a sonofabitch beyond redemption”. However, it gradually becomes apparent that the film is as much about saving his soul as it is laying Melquiades’ to rest.
Once Pete has abducted Norton and disinterred his late, lamented amigo, the movie becomes a meandering, picaresque series of mini-adventures involving rattlesnakes, hungry ants, vengeful healers, a rapidly disintegrating body and — perhaps most memorably — a blind hermit. Levon Helm, once of ’70s rock legends The Band, delivers an impactful cameo as the visually challenged lonely old man, in a sequence which eloquently conveys the harsh realities of an isolated frontier existence.
Everything from craggy ravine to sterile, stifling trailer park is expertly framed by master cinematographer Chris Menges in a style which manages to be both subtle and breathtaking. With only a TV movie — 1995 Western The Good Old Boys — to his credit as director, it was a smart move on Jones’ part to secure the services of the veteran in bringing his vision to the screen. The man who shot The Killing Fields, Local Hero and The Mission knows a thing or two about making landscape a character in itself.
You might expect the journey to be over once the bizarre trio reaches Melquiades’ home town, but in fact when this occurs, audience and protagonists alike must take a leap of faith in order to see the story through to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a bold gamble, but one which pays off handsomely and makes for a rich, rewarding experience.
The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada Released: 07 August 2006
Tommy Lee Jones shares commentary duties with two cast members, though Arriaga would have been a better partner. The two prove an able pairing in an erudite interview, and offer the keenest insights on the ‘making of’ documentary
Verdict Grizzled Texan Tommy Lee Jones has made an exceptionally moving, surprisingly funny, often beautiful film, packed with unforgettable moments and note-perfect performances.
I watched this film on new years eve 2011 this year and my god what a treat. Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut is both a potent western and a powerful morality tale, and boasts mesmerizing performances from both Jones and Barry Pepper. ... More
Here's a review I made earlier!
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada can be encapsulated in just three words: gritty yet sympathetic. Life isn’t like a box of chocolates down on the border between the U.S. and Mexico: life is rife with emotional pain and entertainment is hard to come by. Tommy Lee Jones, who stars as well as directs, portrays the morose characters with unflattering honesty yet Three Burials delves inside each and every one of them, revealing the human within. There’s no... More
Unfortunately missed this when it was out in cinemas, but had the luck to spot it in HMV's sale so bought it blind the other day and settled down to watch it.
Originally I was a little unsure. The start of the film appears to be a bit disjointed, and the first two burials of Melquiades occur rather quickly into it, leaving you wondering how on earth the third is going to take so long (well, perhaps unless you've properly read the plot before hand, unlike me.), but once it gets i... More
I liked it. Jones proves he can handle himself behind the camera too. Some nice performances and lovely photography, it kind of rambles along with a wry sense of humour, but you never feel that it's going nowhere. The scene in the open-air bar with the girl playing the piano is beautifully shot and evocatively lit. You end up sympathising with Barry Pepper's character, he's a pig-headed, ignorant, foolish young man, but then Jones' character probably has a screw loose! ... More
a film of rugged beauty and rare grandeur. Seek it out and embrace its humanism.
Elegant and elegiac. A mightily impressive Western that deserved Oscar noms to go with its Cannes prizes for writing and acting. ... More
It's somewhat strange that this film completely bypassed all of my local cinema on it's initial run, yet manages to get just one showing on the week the film is released on DVD.
I'm glad I opted to watch this on the big screen, not simply to take in and fully appreciate the wonderful scenery on show, but also to experience one of the finest films I've seen all year. I was engrossed from the very first second.
I feel the film worked better as a whole due to the lack of struc... More
Tommy Lee Jones has always had a great energy with his acting abilitys and he's now proved he can direct aswell, and god has he directed this film well! I was amazed at how well made this film was, such patience and perfection. I found the first 40 minutes or so true genius the way the different time frames were merged together, as good as anything Tarantino has done. All the cast gave exceptional performances but the standout was (as always when he's in a film) Tommy Lee Jones himself, he gave ... More
Great film, more brilliant performances from Jones and the continually underrated Barry Pepper.
Not sure that the humour always sat well with the film, but that's a minor quibble in a very strong film. ... More
An assured directorial debut for Tommy Lee Jones and an interesting addition to the Western genre.
The modern day setting may sometimes replace horses with landrovers, saloons with cafes and frontier towns with frontier trailer parks, but the staple Western motifs of redemption, violence, and (individual and geographical) isolation are all present and correct.
The acting is good throughout with strong roles for the women as well as the men. Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Pepper ... More
A stunning directorial debut. Jones is a revelation. He shows a remarkably astute and wry attention to detail, finding laugh out loud humour in the darkest of moments and utilising the backdrop a present day western to its full effect. His themes of redemption and loyalty are explored at their deepest level but with the upmost simplicity and both Jones and Pepper are fantastic as the leads. A story brilliantly told, with great restraint and wit. Amongst the dross clogging up the box office this ... More
on a complete aside I stood next to the actor who played dev in cortantion street in the que, I was franticly texting my brother to tell him I was about to meet Guillerma(as I know him now) and the cheeky bugger started reading my text, proably thought I was etxting someone to say I was stood next to him, as if, though he made a great guess who today in the office (I figured the mojrity of my colleagues wouldnt know who Guillerma Arriana was)
In response to a couple of... More