The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, despite being one of my favourite films of 2006, has received only two short mentions on this site, one of which was totally … Arbitrary.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut, filmed in glorious and oppressive low rise. The borders of America have beautiful scenery, but not the architecture to match. The atmosphere is stifling; here is a place where the only releases are friendship and sex. This is a movie about lonely, unfulfilled people, yet it is ultimately about decency and the transcendental nature of emotions.

Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is alerted of the murder of his friend, illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada. When the local police show no interest in pursuing the matter, Pete finds the killer himself: overzealous Border Patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). Kidnapping Mike, Pete makes his way across the border to bury Melquiades in his home village.

When I saw Three Burials at the cinema, I had almost no idea what it was about. The release was so limited that its print wasn’t preceded by anything as banal as advertisements or trailers; it launched right into the feature (and consequently I almost missed its beginning). Guillermo Arriaga’s apparent insistence on writing his scripts in an entirely non-linear fashion means that it will take a while to get the hang of the movie. It’s never difficult at any point, but the long time that it takes for Jones to establish the central characters means that there are multiple instances where Melquiades is dead and then, seconds later, he is alive. The character arcs of Pete and Mike are therefore tracked all over the place. In any given scene is Mike a cold bastard, or is he tortured by the death that he’s covered up?

Although generally well received, Three Burials has taken fire from some critics for not fleshing out the role of Melquiades. The way that the character has been represented is actually one of the strongest points of the film. Melquiades is more than just a McGuffin: he’s a Quixotic figure, instilling in Pete the desire to chase and fight windmills. Living with friends is sometimes enough, but the first half of this film makes it clear that life can be lonely and aimless along the border. This does not mean that we are treated to the experience of watching other people’s boredom, but rather that we can see how they try to remedy it and how that can serve only to deepen their malaise.

The death of Melquiades therefore acts as a liberator: Pete can feel like he’s actually achieving something while leaving behind his border down existence; Mike can feel marginally less like scum because he’s achieving something and seeing that Mexicans aren’t terrible people.
Had the journey begun earlier in the film, this could have been more like a bizarre road movie. The choice to feature Pete and Mike alone, frequently in silence, for the majority of the trip is wise; it makes the people that they meet along the way at once more memorable and more mystical.
The sort of ethereal tone that the final leg of the journey takes on is unexpected but certainly not unwelcome. The theme becomes that it doesn’t matter what is objectively true, but what is true to you. This is, of course, a malleable concept, but adaptability is the strength of these characters who have decided to change their lives after a shared and traumatic event.

There’s very little to complain about in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: the restraint and the passion of the characters is expertly directed by Tommy Lee Jones in this, his first feature; the music, by Ennio Morricone protégé Marco Beltrami, is haunting; and the ending is dynamite.
Humanity can be lost but, through trials by fire, can be reclaimed anew. Respect, honour and duty are the order of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. There’s much left to worry about after all that’s said and done, but you know they’ll be all right for the moment.

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