' Cinema Romantico: Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Everyone will want to discuss the first foray into directing by Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones when referencing this film, and that’s fine. He does a solid job. But allow me to go in a different direction. The script. Ah yes, the script. It was penned by Guillermo Arriaga who also authored the riveting “21 Grams” (a Prigge Top 5 Film in 2003). That movie was told with an extremely fractured narrative – bouncing back and forth, forth and back in time and cutting to scenes that narratively speaking had nothing to do with the preceding or following scenes. This was a criticism of the movie in some circles. I stand outside those circles – way outside them. To tell “21 Grams” in a linear fashion would have been a fatal mistake and I believe that even more strongly after seeing Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut.

“Three Burials” tells the story of Jones’ hardened cattle-man who befriends and provides work to illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada. This is told in conjunction with the tale of a dense border guard (played ably by Barry Pepper) and his disinterested wife. Pepper’s border guard accidentally shoots Melquiades and kills him. This accident is portrayed as one of the most stupid variety – which is exactly right. There’s no rhyme or reason in the killing or in anything that seems to go on in this tiny border town. Thus when Jones’ cattle-man realizes the inept town sheriff is going to do nothing in relation to the obvious murder he chooses to take justice into his own hands and give Melquaides the burial he had requested in the movie’s most moving sequence.

These early scenes are portrayed in Arriaga’s distinct splintered style. We see the burgeoning friendship of the cattle-man and Melquaides. We see the crumbling marriage of the border guard and his young wife. We see a waitress at the local diner who sleeps around more from boredom than anything else.

But once the shooting has happened and Jones determines the person responsible, he kidnaps the border guard and sets off on what a subtitle helpfully calls “The Journey”. And this is where the movie weakens. Rather than continuing with jump-cut style of the first act it becomes a straight-forward narrative. It doesn’t fall apart, mind you, it just loses it momentum – it’s edge – it’s style. Suddenly, it just feels like a road movie on horseback with several diversions existing it seems merely to show something happening.

I adore the idea of Jones not simply seeking vengeance and taking Pepper along for the ride to properly burial Melquaides. This allows the film to rise above the revenge movie clichés and become something else. But I would have preferred to see this journey inter-cut with the rest of the story rather than standing on its own. It becomes conventional and the convention does not work as well as it might have.

Was it this way to start in the script? Did Jones make the decision? Or the studio? Who knows? But this blogger thinks it was the wrong way to go. That quibble aside, it’s still a worthwhile movie that shows Tommy Lee Jones may have more directing chops than I would have guessed.

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