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USA 2005
Directed by
Tommy Lee Jones
121 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4 stars

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

Synopsis: When Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), an illegal immigrant worker, is found murdered outside a small West Texas border town nobody seems to care except for Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). Refusing to settle for a cover-up and a quiet burial in a pauper’s grave for his best friend, Pete takes it upon himself to kidnap the man responsible for the death, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). Exhuming the body of his dead friend, the three men head off on a bizarre journey to give Melquiades a proper burial, back in Mexico.

The world is broken, divided, and so are the hearts of men and women. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada eloquently makes this perception the centrepiece of a story of one man’s quest to bring a kind of redemption to the world. His journey involves many others, and is ultimately about taking people out of the destructiveness of their own fear and selfishness and into a healing of themselves. With more than a nod towards Sam Peckinpah’s violent yet meditative westerns, the film is an exploration of how people cope with the world around them.

While Melquiades is the title character, the film is really the story of Mike Norton. He’s a violent and selfish man, regarding everyone around him as tools for his use. His wife, Lou Ann (January Jones), is nothing more to him than a sex object, no different to the porn magazines he reads while on border patrol. Mexicans are just objects of hate. And when, in a confused incident, he shoots dead Melquiades, he unleashes upon himself an angel, initially of vengeance, but ultimately of deliverance.

Pete Perkins is the last honest man in this film. He may also be completely insane with grief. Capable of violence yet with the appearance of a serene though gnarled soul, he is very much a prototypical Peckinpah hero. And once he has Mike in his power, things change everywhere. It catalyses Lou Ann, who spends her days watching cartoons and pining for her days as a high school teenager, to seek her own path, to escape and find herself. It pushes the various members of the small town to consider themselves, and to acknowledge who they really are. It pulls to the surface hidden truths about how people act, and what they do to survive, versus what they do because they want to. And all the while, Pete and Mike are dragging a dead body towards a small town in Mexico which may not even exist. Truth, hope and fantasy are all explored as Pete tries to make good on a promise and bury Melquiades in his own village. Even if he has to invent the place to deliver his promise.

Beautifully shot, but with a rough edge the film is not slick but it is honest (the non-linear chronology in the first half is however unnecessarily confusing). And while the pacing slows towards the end, it has its payoff. In this case, the ordeal is part of the experience, the final line of the film showing how sometimes someone must be pushed hard in order to find their humanity.

A film about mistakes, misconceptions, lies, misery and hope, Three Burials is one of the most humane films to come along in quite a while. Unafraid to turn its eye on human frailty, it nonetheless tells a story of how a state of grace may be found.




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