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THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, THE (director: Tommy Lee Jones; screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editor: Roberto Silvi; music: Marco Beltrami; cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Pete Perkins), Barry Pepper (Mike Norton), Julio César Cedillo (Melquiades Estrada), January Jones (Lou Ann Norton), Dwight Yoakam (Sheriff Frank Belmont), Melissa Leo (Rachel), Levon Helm (Old Man With Radio), Vanessa Bauche (Mariana), Mel Rodriguez (Captain Gomez), Richard Jones (Bob); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Fitzgerald/Tommy Lee Jones; Sony Pictures; 2005)
“It attempts to cover a lot of territory just like the American border patrol in Texas, but its results are mixed, perhaps, not unlike the border patrol.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut and stars in this overlong and bleak contemporary western that comes with a message that people from both sides of the Tex-Mex border have a tough go of it and should learn to love one another, as it offers an earnest plea for racial tolerance. It attempts to cover a lot of territory just like the American border patrol in Texas, but its results are mixed, perhaps, not unlike the border patrol. The rich script by Guillermo Arriaga (“Amores Perros”/”21Grams”) was motivated by the unpunished 1997 killing of 18-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., who was tending goats when he was accidentally killed by a marine patrolling for drug smugglers.

It begins with the discovery of the body of illegal Mexican immigrant Mel Estrada (Julio César Cedillo) in a shallow grave by two hunters and via flashback it tells how he got shot. Callow Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones) are newly arrived in Van Horn, Texas, from the Midwest after the border patrolman hubby is transferred and move into a sterile trailer community. Mike is shown in action punching out a few fleeing “wetbacks,” and gets a gentle reprimand from his boss Captain Gomez. While goofing off on patrol by jerking off to a Hustler centerfold, Mike hears shots and believes they are directed at him. He thereby accidentally ends up killing Mel. Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is a scraggly Spanish-speaking gringo cowboy foreman whom Mel worked for as a ranch hand and was his best friend, and who insists that the sheriff Frank Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) investigate the shooting death. To add to the intrigue married diner waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo) is screwing both the sheriff and Pete, while she hooked up Lou Ann with the bashful Mel for a round of sex at the local motel.

When Pete learns that Mike killed his friend and that the law chooses to sweep it under the rug, he kidnaps Mike at gunpoint and makes him dig up Mel’s grave in the town cemetery where he was buried again after an autopsy. Pete sees his mission is to travel across the badlands by horseback and bury his friend in his hometown across the border to fulfill his promise to him. He takes Mike along in a fit of revenge, and when Mel’s body starts to rot he pours antifreeze down his throat to stave off further decay.

It leads to an ambitious tale with political aspirations and mucho gallows humor about delivering a rotting corpse to a town that may not even exist. It also wants to be taken seriously as a soap opera tale about dysfunctional domestic relationships and about a young creepy man who goes on a journey he never intended in order to learn an essential life lesson. It kicks in with an added on tale about friendship, loyalty and redemption. It never quite worked for me, as there’s a smugness that suggests all gringos, even Jones, are deeply flawed while all Mexicans are noble. In fact none of the characterizations seemed much more than one-dimensional. The film’s strength comes from Jones’ defiant tough guy performance, its Sam Peckinpah feel and John Ford vision of the American West as an inhospitable landscape that needs to be further civilized. What it does well is amazingly evoke the geographical, cultural and psychological barrenness of the west Texas border and its spiritually bankrupt town. It shows that what might be hell for some is paradise for others, which is just about the beginning point when we start to discuss immigration and the ramifications of illegals. But this film doesn’t have the moral or political gravitas to take us any further in the immigration debate than stating the obvious that something’s wrong, as it stops short when its charm finally runs out with the third burial and it ends without trying to offend any more by just fading away without a satisfactory resolution.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”