Now, I have only recently started to delve into the murky depth that is the Western. I enjoyed Tombstone (Kurt Russell was amazing as always), The Warrior’s Way had an excellent backdrop, and I want to watch all of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. But, the movie I will be reviewing tonight is by far, a more modern and realistic take in this genre. That movie is 2005’s Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Three Burials), a film I believe to embody both the Western’s capability, as well as heart. It is almost safe to say that this film is Tommy Lee Jones’ baby, taking up roles as the main character and director. From what I have heard he even translated the script from Guillermo Arriaga’s (writer of films like 21 Grams and Babel) original Spanish script.
Three Burials starts off with a Tarantino esk title card stating “First Burial”, that follows is a shot of two park rangers’ in the West Texas Desert, discovering the dead body of a Hispanic man, emerging from a shallow grave. The film then cuts to Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Pete Perkins, standing inside of what seems to be the autopsy wing of the local sheriffs’ office, looking upon the body of his good friend, Melquides Estrada (Julio Cedillo), who has been working as a cowboy in Texas illegally. As the sheriffs’ department considers his body something not to fuss over, especially considering that the freezer’s powerless, they plan on burying his body again, as soon as possible. This creates a problem with Pete, because as Estrada’s friend, he does not appreciate how they are handling his murder (in fact the local border patrol chief, who I will paraphrase as proclaiming “This sounds like a whole lot of paperwork for just some Mexican”).
The plot breaks off in multiple branches to introduce and follow other characters (a trait commonly found in many of Arriaga’s scripts), starting with Pete going off on detective work to find Estrada’s killer. This part of the movie is what I consider a slice of life story; since a considerable amount of the people who live in this small West Texas town are followed around day-to-day. Mike Norton (Berry Pepper), recently transferred member of Border Patrol, has moved down from Cincinnati with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones). The two have moved into a portable home, where Mike leaves for work every day, and Lou Ann either roams around the house or walks down to the local diner. This diner, run by the married couple Bob and Rachel, is the local hangout for most of the characters in the film. Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), who I would describe as Mike’s rival, spends most of his time flirting with Rachel whom I am under the impression is the only waitress working at the diner/woman in the entire town. Rachel spends her days having equal opportunity affairs between her husband Bob, Pete, and good ol’ Sheriff Belmont. The rest of the story follows the interaction between these characters, and how they relate back to Melquiades when he was alive.
Three Burials as a film has this perplexing quantity of despair that is alleviated by very sharp wit. I guess you could say that the character’s wit is as dry as the deserts that they live near. I will give an example; picture the characters Sheriff Belmont and Rachel sitting naked on a couch after what the audience is lead to believe is an interrupted marital-affair.
Rachel: Viagra works for Bob.
Belmont: I’ll turn truck-stop queer and blowjob-giver before I use that shit.
Now, some people might get a chuckle just out of reading that, but what Three Burials adds is the visible look of embarrassment/frustration that Sheriff Belmont wears on his face, all the while covering his shame with a couch pillow. Things like that broke up the deep depression that the movie bestows towards the viewer. It is understated and quick, almost like the characters would be doing this even if they were not on camera. Now, at first I considered how I have a habit of finding comedic elements even in movies where there are none, but watching this with Alex and Matt demonstrated to me that the comedy was thankfully not lost on others.
Three Burials is shot around the West Texas area. The remote, “town in the middle of no-where that you could literally drive through without knowing it” feels consistent with that of various small towns. Some for instance, like Redford Texas, have a population as low as 132. I thought that filming in these little towns showed the level of boredom many of the characters (especially Lou Ann) experienced during the film. One scene in the film entails Mike driving Lou Ann for quite some time out-of-town to the nearest mall to allow for Lou Ann to shop. The usually quiet Lou Ann, whose days seem to be spent keeping house, smoking at the diner with Rachel, and hiding away from her neighbors; this shopping trip clearly demonstrated the one escape she has in her mundane life. This scene pinpoints that many women living in small towns can become very bored. I have lived in Texas my entire life, but I live in the busy city of Dallas, nothing like the towns featured in Three Burials. Most of the tan mountain filled exterior deserts/Mexico scenes were filmed in Big Bend National Park, a place that I could swear had more sand and cacti than anything else, and not even close to as many mountains (granted these are memories from when I was four years old).
It goes without saying that I am really into things that involve manly bounding. Friendship among men in mobster films, samurai films, or anything directed by John Woo really just gets to me. Pete and Melquiades originally bound through their love of ranching and horseback riding, but this leads to a deeper friendship between the two of them. Much of the first half of this movie consist just of these two grown men talking to each other about their lives; from sharing photos of left behind family, to trying and getting some nookie with the few local ladies, to even giving each other horses as signs of friendship.
Pros: Every cast member held their own, which is nice to see because they could have just as easily left Tommy Lee Jones with all the work. Most people would consider this a negative part of the movie, but Berry Pepper’s portrayal of Mike Norton was actually able to skive me out. The reason this is an achievement is that skiving someone like me, an avid Kazuo Koike fan, is by all means impressive. The cinematography looks fantasy, Tommy Lee Jones’ rich Texan history really shows in the locations that he chooses to shoot scenes.
Cons: During the second half, basically the second hour of the movie, it really slows down. Even though I was enjoying it at times, the second half might as well be a different movie. It is just this long trek that does reach a climax, but does seem to take it’s time. I guess I didn’t mind the slowness that Three Burials purports during the first half because I felt that it fit the setting.
EuropaCorp brought this film out through the Sony Pictures Classics label; meaning that unless you say this in the Cannes film festival, there is a very slim chance that you have even heard of the film. The release is pretty bare bones, consisting of only a commentary track. I enjoyed Three Burials of Melquides Estrada, I just plead for people to power through the slow parts for its great ending.