February 23, 2006

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FILM: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (R)
by Amy Diaz

Tommy Lee Jones proves that he can take all comers on both sides of the camera lens in the cowboy movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a film he directs and stars in.

Lest the popularity of Brokeback Mountain leave fans of less social-message-having westerns fearful that their genre must now deal with some issue, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada returns to the dusty fun of a cowboy movie about grizzled old cowpokes and sheriffs who form posses and outlaws headed to Mexico. Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is about as grizzled as they come — a tough vaquero working on a ranch in Texas near the Mexican border. He meets and befriends Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), a man cut from similar cloth but younger and skittish due to his less-than-legal immigration status. Melquiades spins wonderful tales of a hometown in Mexico, one in a beautiful valley where a wife and three kids wait for him. He makes Pete promise that if anything happens to him in El Norte, Pete will see that Melquiades ends up back there in the little village of Jimenez.

Lucky for Melquiades that he makes the deal when he does.
Overeager border patrol officer Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) shows up in town with his in-a-state-of-shock wife (January Jones) and begins to go after the border crossers with a zealousness that troubles his fellow officers, especially when he punches one Mexican woman in the nose. While patrolling the wilderness (actually, while taking a break from patrolling the wilderness to answer the call of nature), Mike hears and feels a few bullets coming his way. Without thinking or really looking, he fires back. When all the shooting stops, he realizes that he’s killed Melquiades, who was shooting at a coyote menacing his livestock. Mike buries him (the first burial), only to have the body found a short time later. Law enforcement, including a rather weary sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), want the matter to go away and quietly absolve Mike, burying Melquaides (second time) in a country grave.

But Pete finds out who really killed his friend and wants to fulfill his promise to take Melquiades home. And his sense of cowboy justice says he doesn’t have to perform that task on his own. He kidnaps Mike at gunpoint and takes him and Melquiades on a journey across a harsh desert back over the border.

The Three Burials features characters dealing in varying levels of loss and disappointment and facing it all with a dry, somewhat fatalistic humor. We have in Pete not a traditional white-hat hero but a man who has decided, absolutely, to fulfill a promise, even if it requires some questionable legal and moral actions. Mike is not a seething villain but a man acting out his disappointment in life by being a bully. At several points during the movie we see that, despite his carelessness, latent racism and tendency toward brutality, he is deeply guilty over what he’s done.

The movie also features excellent performances by January Jones and by Melissa Leo, who plays the sort of hard but soft-hearted woman that always appears in a western to do right when the men around her do wrong (though Leo’s Rachel does plenty of wrong herself).

Tommy Lee Jones turns in a tight, surprisingly moving, surprisingly funny Western that will leave you wishing for more tales from what’s left of cowboy country. A

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