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February 2005

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

by Kam Williams

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada


Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Bauche, Levon Helm
Rated R for graphic sexuality, nudity, profanity, violence and gruesome images.
Running time: 121 minutes





Ranch Hand Exhibits Extraordinary Loyalty to Late Friend in Macabre Melodrama

Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedilla) must have had a premonition about the prospects of ever seeing his wife and three children again. For the illegal alien from Mexico only ever exacted one promise from his best friend, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones): "If I die here, carry me back to my family, and bury me in my hometown, Jimenez."

Mel was a farm hand and Pete, the foreman, on a sheep ranch in a tiny Texas town located just north of the border. And the pair forged a cherished friendship which extended beyond the work day, through such male-bonding opportunities as rendezvousing at a cheater's motel with a couple of miserably-married women, one of whom happens to be the wife a local law enforcement officer.

When Mel's body is discovered in a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere, the sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) shrugs-off mounting an investigation with, "He was a wetback." So, Pete decides to do a little digging on his own, both literally and figuratively, in order to solve the mystery and to abide by Mel's last request.

This unsettling scenario initiates a most unlikely series of events in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a macabre movie which marks the directorial debut of Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones (for The Fugitive). The film unfolds like a cross between Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Weekend at Bernie's (1989). The storyline sounds suspiciously similar to the former, an unapologetically gruesome Western from Sam Pekinpah, while some of the pictures' lighter moments look lifted from the latter, a kinky cadaver comedy. For instance, faithful Peckinpah fans might find themselves reminded of a scene from Bring Me the Head when watching weather-beaten Pete's meandering monologue as he pours alcohol over his pal's decomposing skull to keep the bugs at bay.

Yet, in spite of its absence of unoriginality, this deterministic morality play does have a few redeeming features. Foremost, is how it harks back to a bygone era when "a man's word was his bond," making one feel compelled to keep a commitment, however irrational, out of an almost perverse sense of loyalty. Secondly, it's nice to see so many inspired performances, especially that of the craggy-faced Jones in what is easily his best outing in years. Plus, his hand-picked cast turned out to be a terribly talented bunch, from Melissa Leo and Julia Jones as the femme fatales, to Barry Pepper and Richard Jones as their cuckolded spouses, to extended cameos by country singer Dwight Yoakum and The Band's Levon Helm.

Finally, the plot's deliberate pacing enabled the flick's gifted cinematographer to milk the most from the sparse backdrops which, in turn, affords the audience an opportunity to soak in the open sky and, ironically, to luxuriate in the relentlessly simplicity of the desert settings. Unfortunately, it's sad to see so that many positives are ultimately outweighed by the production's primal insanity. In the end, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada's breathtaking tableaus, colorful characters, and moving message about redemption end up overshadowed by its wanton insanity one might normally associate with a sadistic snuff film.

Good (2 stars)