Jones’ impressive directorial debut defies typical western
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a “modern western,” true enough. But it’s no mere genre piece. Rather its very considerable power and appeal show just how deeply engaging such things can sometimes be—especially when in the right hands.
The hands in this case include screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), world-class cameraman Chris Menges and veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones, who is also making a very impressive directorial debut with this picture. Jones has the lead role, an old-school cowhand named Pete Perkins, but one of several rewarding elements of Three Burials is in its rich and surprisingly varied range of secondary characters—including an overzealous young border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a contrasting pair of discontented married gals (Melissa Leo and January Jones) and the illegal immigrant and born-again vaquero “Mel” Estrada (Julio Cedillo).
The main story thread has to do with Perkins’ efforts to return his dead friend’s body to the Mexican village the younger man called home. Arriaga’s scenario gives us more than one perspective on the incident in which Estrada is shot down near the Texas-Mexico border early in the film, and a leisurely structure of flashbacks shows us how Perkins’ intensely loyal friendship with Estrada came to be in the first place. And Norton, whom Perkins forcibly enlists for this mad and strangely heroic journey, becomes an increasingly significant figure in the central action.
Perkins, Norton and the corpse ride south along a provocative semblance of the trail Melquiades must have followed on the way to El Norte, Perkins’ part of which is still a little like the mythical Old West. The journey brings them into quasi-allegorical encounters with a sightless old desert hermit (Levon Helm), an understandably angry curandera, and an oddly idyllic band of vaqueros watching TV at a remote campsite.
All in all, Three Burials follows a narrative trail that seems simultaneously mythical and contemporary. There’s a harsh brilliance to the Jones/Arriaga storytelling, and their mixture of Old West and New West leads into Mexico in a way that raises a whole range of haunting questions about homes and homelands—and hearts of darkness—in modern day North America.