Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 16 of 100

Picture the scene: Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), rifle in hand, strides up to a vantage point overlooking a gorge. He whips off his ten-gallon hat, throws it upended onto the ground and tosses his glasses and watch into it. Thus unimpeded, he hunkers into a sniper’s position and draws a bead on his quarry, who is leading a kidnapped man and a couple of horses along the pass. Belmont’s finger tightens on the trigger.

So far, so ruggedly iconic. All that’s required now is a shot to ring out, Belmont’s quarry to drop from his horse and the sheriff to stand up, toss the rifle to a deputy and walk coolly away. But Tommy Lee Jones’s contemporary western – from an intricate and emotionally resonant script by Guillermo Arriaga – breaks down clichés instead of embracing them; subverts the masculine ethos of the genre instead of being defined by it.

What actually happens is that Belmont, knowing himself enough to know that he can’t shoot a man in cold blood and without warning, releases his finger from the trigger, brings the barrel of the rifle up and rolls onto his back. He squints into the sun and wipes an arm across his brow. His moment of contemplation is shattered by the jangly ringtone generic to T-mobile cellphones.

In this one moment, surprisingly comic, the juxtaposition of modern life and the old way of doing things is achieved as effectively as the juxtaposition of the various masculine codes the main characters cleave to and the challenges those codes are battered with. First time I saw ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, I imagined the ghost of Sam Peckinpah drifting onto the set, tipping Tommy Lee Jones the nod and leaving a little something of himself in the fabric of the film.

I was still reminded of Peckinpah, watching the film recently for the third or fourth time. Explicitly, the odyssey-with-corpse narrative and Mexican setting are redolent of ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’. More subtly, the dynamics of the pursuit in ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ – Garrett (James Coburn) tracks down the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) with a sense of regret and a palpable lack of urgency – find a corollary in Belmont’s frustrated and lackadaisical manhunt for ranch boss Pete Perkins (Jones).

Said manhunt is precipitated – and I’m not throwing up any spoiler warnings, since the plot mechanics are established very soon into the two-hour running time – by the accidental shooting of Pete’s friend Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) by Border Patrol guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). Pete combines a promise he made to Melquiades (“If I die over here, carry me back to my family and bury me in my home town; I don't want to be buried on this side among all the fucking billboards”) with a ruthless vigilante sensibility after Belmont fails to take the investigation into Melquiades’s death seriously.

Norton’s killing of Melquiades might be accidental, but elsewhere his guilt and shortcomings are writ large. He is violent in his treatment of Mexicans trying to sneak across the border; unfeeling in his treatment of his trophy wife Lou Ann (January Jones, crafting an all-too-human performance out of what could have been a nothing role); and lacklustre in his approach to his job, whiling away the hours on duty reading porn.

Failure of masculinity extends to Belmont, whose impotence as an authority figure is mirrored by his literal impotence during his trysts with married coffee shop waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who doesn’t help by remarking that her much older husband swears by Viagra. “I'll turn truck-stop queer and blowjob-giver before I use that shit,” Belmont replies disdainfully.

Even Pete, essentially the one good man in all of this, is no stranger to moral compromise. He’s also carrying on with Rachel (a quietly devastating scene, late in the film, has him pin his hopes on her joining him in Mexico; you can guess the outcome). He works for a man he has no respect for, a man who’s only a rancher because the ranch was bought for him by rich parents. During his odyssey to inter Melquiades and to coerce Norton into atoning for his action, he vacillates between using force towards Norton and being rendered as impotent as Belmont when they encounter an old man, blind and infirm, living out in the wilds who begs them to perform a mercy killing. “I don’t want to offend God by killing myself,” he says. “We don’t want to offend Him either,” Pete replies as he slowly and solemnly rides away.

‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ is a thoughtful and thought-provoking film. Tommy Lee Jones goes for slow-burn in both the pacing and his performance. As director, he engages with the material on a level that would suggest the work of a seasoned filmmaker, and elicits flawless performances from his entire cast. As an actor, this is up there with his work on the Coen brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’.

There is profundity, intensity and raw moments of emotional import on display here. You’d expect nothing else from Arriaga, the man who wrote ‘Amores Perros’ and ‘21 Grams’ for Alejandro González Iñárritu. Yet Jones steers away from the austerity and sense of moral outrage that typify Iñárritu’s films, finding instead a sad but wry humour and an equally saddle-worn humanity. In its final scenes, ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ stops being about revenge and becomes a film about redemption, delivering a quietly haunting finale and confirming itself as a modern classic.


Bryce Wilson said...

Great write up of a great film.

Haven't seen it since the theatrical, something tells me its high time for a rewatch.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Bryce. 'Three Burials' isn't a film I could watch with any degree of regularity but reapproaching it every couple of years, it can be savoured like a good wine.