Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/15/08 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed and starring Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada tells the story of an aging cowboy who discovers the body of his dead immigrant friend as he captures his killer and take him on a long, horseback journey from Texas to Mexico to bury the body. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The film is a part western, part-journey that is also inspired by the story of Don Quixote. Also starring Barry Pepper, Julio Cedello, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Bauche, Cecilia Suarez, and Levon Helm. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is an enchanting yet haunting film from Tommy Lee Jones and company.

Herding goats near the Texas-Mexico border is a man named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedello) where he shoots at a coyote as the two gunshots are heard by a new border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) who shoots Estrada to death and later buries him. After Estrada's body is found by patrolmen, local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) calls Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) to reveal that Estrada is found dead as Perkins asks Belmont who killed Estradas as he would recall the times he met Estrada where they became friends. Particularly when they out with a couple of women including Pete's married girlfriend Rachel (Melissa Leo) who is also having an affair with Belmont. Meanwhile, Mike Norton is dealing with his troubled marriage to Lou Ann (January Jones) who feels bored by her new surroundings despite finding a friend in Rachel where she went on a double-date with Pete and Melquiades some time ago. Mike's new job as a border patrolman has become troubled due his violent attitude towards Mexican where he becomes distant following Estrada's death. 

After Belmont buries Estrada at another place, Rachel reveals to Pete that Mike Norton is the one who killed Estrada. When Belmont refuses Pete's request to arrest Norton due to issues with the border patrol, Pete decides to take matters into his own hands by breaking into the Nortons' home trailer where he ties up Lou Ann and kidnaps Mike. Forcing Mike to dig Estrada's body, Pete decides to make a vow to bury his friend at his birth home of Jiminez, Mexico as he also takes Mike on a treacherous journey on horseback as an act of revenge. While Belmont decides to go after Pete, pete is at the other side of the mountains forcing Belmont to let the border patrol and its Captain Gomez (Mel Rodriguez) to handle things but they're unable to capture Pete and Mike. Back in Texas, Lou Ann makes a decision about her marriage as she reveals to Rachel what she will do. With the journey to Mexico where Pete and Mike later encounter a blind man (Levon Helm), Mike tries to escape where he gets bitten by a rattlesnake as he's later saved by a group of U.S. bound Mexicans led by Lucio (Ignacio Guadalupe) to a small town where Pete also arrives at the town. 

At the town, Mike is treated by a woman named Mariana (Vanessa Bauche) whose nose Mike had broken weeks ago while Pete makes a call to Rachel to come to Mexico and get married. Melancholia eventually seeps into both Pete and Mike as they continue towards their journey to Jiminez as many locals claim the place doesn't exist. Finally meeting a woman (Cecilia Suarez) Pete thinks is Melquiades' wife, Pete wonders if everything his friend had said is true or not as he and Mike try to find the place called Jiminez.

The film is essentially about a man vowing to keep a promise to a friend of his while seeking justice and honor in his death. The character of Pete Perkins is someone who is seeking companionship in his lonely life whether it's through a married woman like Rachel or his friend Melquiades Estrada. When Melquiades is taken away, he tries to seek justice by capturing a man as ignorant as Mike Norton. When Norton becomes a prisoner, he is being punished not just physically but also emotionally and mentally as he goes on his own personal journey about himself.

Director Tommy Lee Jones and writer Guillermo Arriaga create a unique structure to the film to the film. Especially with Arriaga's unique narrative style as he separates the film into four parts. The first half is told through flashbacks and present time back and forth about the first two burials of Melquiades Estrada and Perkins seeking justice. The second half of the film involves the journey and the people back in Texas that concludes with the third and final burial of Melquiades Estrada. The film also involves a melancholic tone as Perkins tries to deal with his own alienation following Estrada's death as he tries to take care of his body as its decaying while being eaten by ants and such. The theme of alienation is very prevalent not just in Perkins but also the supporting characters as they all deal with boredom in this little Texan town with Lou Ann couldn't cope with living in small town Texas despite her friendship with Rachel.

Jones' direction works to convey the tone of fantasy and reality with that ode to Man of La Mancha where Jones' character is Don Quixote and Mike Norton is Sancho Panza. The location in Texas is truly inspiring as Jones uses it to great heights from its mountains to its beautiful scenery of water and desert truly gives the film a worldly feel. Jones' approach to the ending might seem baffling to some audience but again, it's him delving into a kind of realism mixed in with fantasy relating to Perkins. Jones use of compositions, scenery, and themes to convey the film is truly magnificent as it shows that he has a great future in being a director.

Cinematographer Chris Menges does some amazing work in the use of exteriors from the skylines to the dark, moody nighttime scenes to convey the film's melancholic mood. The interiors are also wonderful from the blue-green look of the diner Rachel works at to the Mexican bar mixed in with red lights and blue that Perkins is in to call Rachel. Menges' cinematography is astonishing as is his shots of the Texan mountains and hills. Editor Roberto Silvi does an excellent job with the film's present-day/flashback cutting to give the film a nice, unique pacing that works to convey the film's first half while the second half is more straightforward and intense. Production designer Merideth Boswell and art director Jeff Knipp do an amazing job in creating the look of the homes and places that Perkins and Norton go into, notably a cantina that is filled with wonderful lights and such.

Costume designer Kathy Kiatta does a fantastic job in the look of the costumes from the men's clothing filled with belts, cowboy boots, and cowboy hats to the dresses of the women as well as casual gear that is filled with wonderful colors. Sound recordist Loic Gourbe and mixer Mark Weingarten do a wonderful job in capturing the atmosphere of each location shot as well as the sounds of gunshots and animals in the desert. The film's music by composer Marco Beltrami is amazing in its understated tone with the use of acoustic instruments that has an intensity in the guitars to convey a feel of the western. Beltrami's score also does well in the suspense and melancholia as it's another highlight of the film. The soundtrack mostly consists of country classics by Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Freddy Fender, Roger Miller, and Dwight Yoakam as well as some Mexican, ranchero music.

The film's cast assembled by Jeanne McCarthy is wonderfully superb with small performances from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga as a cowboy whom Perkins and Norton run into, Rene Campero as a local Don who Perkins talks to if he knew Melquiades, Celia Suarez as a woman who Perkins thinks is Melquiades' wife, and Vanessa Bauche as Mariana, a woman whom Mike had broken her nose during an immigration chase who would later return the favor. Ignacio Guadalupe is good as Lucio, a Mexican who accompanies Perkins and Norton to town while befriending the old cowboy. Mel Rodriguez is also good as border patrol captain Gomez who tries to control Mike while doing his job to try and capture Perkins. Legendary drummer for the Band, Levon Helm is amazing as a blind man who takes Perkins and Norton for dinner and company as he asks them a favor that is morally wrong that neither are wanting to do.

Melissa Leo is excellent as Rachel, a married woman who has numerous affairs with both sheriff Belmont and Perkins as she tries to keep the young Lou Ann company while being confused in her affairs while January Jones is pretty good as the neglected and lost Lou Ann. Julio Cedello is great in his small role as Melquiades Estrada who is just a simple man that becomes the unwittingly victim of his own death while his body is being carried around in a treacherous journey.

Country singer Dwight Yoakam is excellent as the cantankerous Sheriff Belmont who has a real dislike towards Perkins while trying to maintain his role as sheriff only to find comfort in Rachel. Barry Pepper is brilliant in his role as Mike Norton, an angry, naive, ignorant man who has committed murder only to be dragged and tortured physically and emotionally into a journey as he tries to seek redemption and understanding. Pepper's performance is a real highlight as he endures many physical and mental challenges for his character while being a great foil for Jones.

Then there's Tommy Lee Jones in one of his finest performances yet. In his role as a laconic, melancholic rancher is just amazing to watch as Jones' understated, minimalist performance is shown a wide range of emotion and humor as he plays a man trying to make a promise. Jones also brings a wonderful presence to his character as if he is Don Quixote that makes his performance more worldly and grand as it's a great character for the actor to play.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a truly superb film from Tommy Lee Jones and writer Guillermo Arriaga with a great cast led by Jones and Barry Pepper. With a wonderful supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Dwight Yoakam, and the late Levon Helm, it's a very unique and exotic film that plays into the world of the western and its theme of redemption. Fans of Jones' acting will no doubt consider this one of his finest work as well as be surprised by what he's able to do as a filmmaker. So in the end, for anyone that wants a mesmerizing western mixed in with fantasy, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the film to see.

(C) thevoid99 2012


Alex Withrow said...

I don't know why, but I've only seen this film once. I absolutely loved it, and your review has encouraged me to give it another go. Good stuff here.

thevoid99 said...

It's definitely a film that is worth re-watching as I think it's the best screenplay that Guillermo Arriaga has done.