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Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Tommy Lee Jones’ feature-film directorial debut shows that he’s good at capturing small-town life and poverty-line Americans. But it’s not enough to earn The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada a recommendation.

Small-Town Ennui

Jones captures border life in small-town Texas
Jones captures border life in small-town Texas

The movie delivers what its title promises. We open on the first burial being undone by a coyote. Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), a Mexican cowboy and an illegal immigrant who worked on Pete’s (Tommy Lee Jones) ranch, was shot and killed. Two hunters spot the coyote and discover the body. We get to know Pete and the town of Van Horn, Texas, through the investigation into the apparent murder.

Dwight Yoakam plays the local cop, a good old boy who believes in justice, especially if it’s easy. When he can, he sleeps with Rachel (Melissa Leo), the local waitress whose older husband owns the hotel diner. And new into town are Mike and Lou Ann Norton (Barry Pepper and January Jones). Mike has a job with the Border Patrol, which leaves Lou Ann very little to do but watch TV, wash her car, and smoke in the diner.

The lazy cop decides the evidence from the autopsy is inconclusive, and since the refrigeration at the morgue isn’t working, he recommends that Melquiades be buried right away in the town cemetery. Thereafter, more questions are asked, and it is whispered that someone on the Border Patrol might have done the shooting. Pete hears this through the grapevine and launches the film’s final act, a long journey to Mexico and the third burial of Melquiades.

Lower’n Star

The small-town ennui is palpable, and the blend of cultures on the border between Texas and Mexico is well observed. From this angle, Three Burials a nice companion piece to John Sayles’ Lone Star, which is more intellectual and political, and less blue-collar.

But as a whole, Three Burials isn’t nearly as good.

Start with the primary conflict, which is the movie’s last act. Pete and his companion are moving with Melquades’ body. New filmmakers are often told “don’t mistake motion for action.” Three Burials illustrates what not to do. For a third of the film, nothing happens except a general motion towards Mexico. Little conflicts add some texture — a snake bites, a friendly rancher aids, a horse stumbles, — but mostly what happens is the story stagnates.

And although it was great to meet real small-town characters — you hardly ever see them in Hollywood movies — they get boring after a while. Even the movie seems to lose interest in them; by the end we’ve simply lost touch with all but two of the film’s characters.

A Concluding Mystery

Perhaps least satisfying is the movie’s conclusion, which introduces a mystery that fails to engage any curiosity. Something Melquaides told Pete in a flashback turns out not to be true. Or maybe it was true and another person is lying. In any case, we get so few hints as to Melquiades’ motive, and have so little knowledge of Melquiades himself (except as a corpse), that the “mystery” backfires. Instead of piquing the audience’s interest in the character, it frustrated the audience by failing to at least deliver on the story we expected.

Jones’ direction is good when it comes to actors, setting, and tone. But plotting and pacing are big problems (the most obvious symptom is Jones’ unnecessary title cards that tell us “The First Burial of Melquiades Estrada”, etc.).

Unless you’re a huge fan of Jones or modern Westerns, you might as well walk past The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

  • Ginger:
    Man, don't you have a soul?? The story contained so many elements that I found myself totally absorbed in the plot. The obsession with having some power by the local sheriff, who was impotent; the idealism of the Tommy Lee Jones character....making the young, arrogant kid atone for what he had done; the tenderness shown by the main character and his friend, Mel, when they spent some time with the female characters; showing the Mexican people trying to get across the border in such human terms... all made for a fascinating film, in my opinion.
    I do wish I could have gotten the subtitle option on my DVD player to work so I could have understood all the Spanish spoken. I could grasp the intent of the scenes, but felt robbed of important clues regarding the action that was moving the story along. August 31, 2006 reply
  • Al Edge: I can see where Marty Mapes is coming from with the downbeat tone of his review. In many ways the movie doesn't move forward during the trek. Maybe, that's on account of the absence of dialogue and real drama. And yet, in many ways the two characters are reverting to type. Neither are exactly garrulous. In fact at times, the corpse is more chatty. Oh yeah and as marty says the captions are naff and the ending irritates in its failure to sate your longing for Melquaides's family to be part of the final spiritual Assumption into hsi paradise.

    And yet it all still works. Perfectly. It's like any great film or music or whatever. In the end, you can analyze it to bits and dissect its shortcomings. But when it grabs that little emotional trigger inside then you just know the sum of parts that may well be flawed has added up to a whole that means you've experienced something special.

    Well done Tommy Lee et alia.

    December 9, 2006 reply
  • Andy: A good review. The film is empty, both emotionally and intellectually. None of the characters are developed and no story is told. All the sub-plots are dead-ends and are abandoned quickly, leaving us with the only real plot line, the travel to Mexico - a tedious journey filled with dull episodes and an unrewarding ending. The film keeps hinting constantly that 'now you are supposed to feel something', but i only felt bullied and bored to death. What a waste of time, money and effort. A zero out of any number of stars. December 10, 2008 reply