Dead man riding
Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut (and does a fine job directing himself) with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, one of the stranger films to come down the pike in some time. It’s a twisted road movie where some men go on a long trek, and one of those men just happens to be a corpse. In its own peculiar way, the film is a grand statement on the powerful bonds of friendship and loyalty.
When a couple of poachers spot a coyote feeding upon an obscured prey near the Mexican border, they do some target practice and take the critter out. When they go to confirm their kill, they discover the object the coyote was eating was in fact a dead man. The body is brought back to a West Texas town for a short investigation that reveals the deceased is Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), friend to local cowpoke Pete Perkins (Jones).
Pete isn’t liked by the local authorities, mainly because he and Sheriff Belmont (the always surprising Dwight Yoakam) share a lover (Melissa Leo). In the film’s opening sequence, we see new border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) picking out a motor home with his young wife. Norton’s role in the film is not immediately apparent because events in the opening segment of the movie are depicted out of order. But after Mike has a mishap in the high desert while sneaking a peek at porn, his role in the story becomes perfectly clear. He plays a major part in the death of Estrada, the film’s central tragedy.
Much to Pete’s chagrin, Sheriff Belmont buries Estrada in a public cemetery. Pete had promised his friend that if Estrada ever met an early demise, he would take him back to his home in Mexico and give him a proper burial. When the circumstances behind Estrada’s shooting death are revealed, nobody gives a damn, and no arrests are made. Pete takes action, kidnaps Norton, exhumes his friend and sets out on horseback to bury Estrada in Mexico.
Through flashback, we see Pete and Estrada riding horses, enjoying conversation and going out on dates with a couple of married women. The two don’t seem like close friends, but as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Estrada was probably lonely Pete’s only real friend in the world. His willingness to break the law and destroy his own life for the burial of a friend makes perfect sense through Jones’ carefully modulated performance. It’s his best work since Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys.
Had I been able to see this film sooner, you would’ve heard me trumpeting Barry Pepper for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. His unintelligent and at first uncaring character experiences a strange sort of redemption, and there aren’t many actors who could’ve navigated the complexities of the Norton character. He’s one of those despicable people who still manage to generate a certain level of sympathy. I can’t say the same for the character of Belmont, whom the brilliant Yoakam manages to make perfectly loathsome, something he proved capable of as Doyle in Sling Blade.
By film’s end, Pete has gone a little crazy, and so has the movie. Corpse maintenance (keeping ants from eating it, filling the corpse with antifreeze) takes a bit of a mental toll. Credit Jones for making this strange project come together as a cohesive, moving piece. The man waited 60 years to make his directorial debut, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a rather risky choice. It also proves to be a very good one.