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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.