Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a new take on the western genre. Set in modern times, this is a unique revenge picture with a more positive message than most. Jones also stars as Pete Perkins, an old cowboy, who embodies all the classic western ideals. Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is his Spanish-speaking friend and ranch hand, who falls victim to an unfortunate shooting at the barrel of trigger-happy border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). After a…failed attempt at cover-up, spearheaded by crooked police officer Belmont – a masterful portrayal by country music star Dwight Yoakam – Estrada’s body finds itself in Perkins’ possession, and a journey for a proper burial begins. But Perkins isn’t going back to Mexico alone. He kidnaps Norton and forces the man into the role of Estrada. Jones does a great job of walking that line between insanity and friendship, nowhere more apparent than the scene, where he proudly boasts of his triumph to slow his old friend’s decomposition. (I’ll never look at antifreeze the same way again.)
Shot from Guillermo Arriaga’s literary script, Jones’ interpretation of time and place is stunning. The film begins in a strange place and jumps around with great frequency. Pete and Estrada’s relationship contains not a word of English. One minute, the title character is alive. The next, he’s dead. Then, he’s alive again. It would have been too easy for the film to crumble under its own structural weight, if not for Jones’ seamless direction, which keeps the film’s nomadic tendencies surprisingly clear. By excluding English (and subtitles) from the scenes with Pete and Estrada, the audience realizes just how special the young immigrant was to Perkins. Their relationship was something exclusive, and it seems as if it was the closest Pete ever came to loving another human being. Unfortunately, there will probably be a few snickers if I don’t clarify; but for the record, it’s a non-sexual love. It’s friendship, plain and simple. And the fact the audience doesn’t even get to invade that bond tells all the more what Estrada meant to Perkins.
Aside from the film’s core, there are several amazing performances in supporting roles. January Jones does a fine job of garnering sympathy in her role as the over-used, under-appreciated wife of Mike Norton. She is the quintessential desperate housewife. Turning her on to her own hopelessness is the wayward Rachel (Melissa Leo), a forty-something waitress, who refuses to be satisfied with one man alone. The characters and the environment both make viewers want to take a bath at times, and it’s a refreshing feel this day and age. Most films seem too polished. While the cinematography of Three Burials makes tremendous use of scenery, the characters – their world, their lives, and their habits – push us into filling up the tub. It’s an honest portrayal, and that’s rarely seen these days. Last and certainly not least, I would be remiss to neglect the wonderful performance of Levon Helm as the pitiful old man, forgotten and alone in the world. It seems like a throwaway part, but in the hands of Helm, it steals the show, and enables the rest of the picture to stand out. Three Burials is easily one of the best five films of 2005.
Sony offers both anamorphic widescreen and full screen formats. Of course, the full frame’s very nature distorts the picture more than I am satisfied with, but I will admit it boasts some nice colors – nothing like the widescreen, though. I couldn’t find a single flaw with the 2.35:1 presentation. It’s a vibrant looking picture with deep blacks when necessary. The landscapes of south Texas and Mexico make one actually believe there still may be some Wild West left to discover. It’s a rugged terrain with enough cracks and crevices to mirror the coarse lives of its characters.
Marco Beltrami’s genius is on display from the opening credits, as the maestro delivers one of his best scores in a long time. Aside from that, there’s something stoic and dependable about the film’s sole 5.1 track. It carries a nice pitch on volume with dialogue and the occasional gunshot taking up the most space. The silence weighs in heavily with that pin-drop beauty one expects from a digitally mastered track. Not a film to over-exasperate, Three Burials offers a score, which is exactly what you would expect with no nasty surprises.
A sense of brevity adds to the film’s merits; however, it’s disappointing to see that same sense carry over into the bonus materials. I would have welcomed much more from Sony. However, the good news is this: there is a commentary track, which features January Jones, Tommy Lee, and Dwight Yoakam. The track has a tendency to go in spurts, but the patient viewer will be rewarded with plenty of worthwhile information.
Now that I’ve seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, I can finally pick my own best picture. I don’t know if this is it – as it turns out there were five pretty decent flicks last year – but it’s one of them. So don’t worry – you won’t be wasting two hours of your life with this one. Add in Sony’s stunning A/V presentation, a stirring Beltrami score, and a pretty interesting commentary track, and this one’s a lock. Oh, by the way – if you’re interested – this film joins Cinderella Man, Walk the Line, A History of Violence, and The White Countess as my picks for last year’s cream of the crop. Which of these won? It may be another year before I can make that decision.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary featuring January Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, and Dwight Yoakam