- Tommy Lee
- Chris Menges
Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange le Pogam
by Sony Pictures Classics
for intense violence and one very unsettling animal death.
STARRING: 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) and Vanessa Bauche
For years, viewers have marveled at the deeply
engraved face of actor Tommy Lee Jones. Now, seeing his directorial
debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it
all makes sense. You’d have extravagant furrows in your brow too if your
imagination lived in territory like this.
The Three Burials is about border crossings,
but instead of playing the guy who arrests illegal aliens
— as he did in Men in Black
— Jones is playing Pete Perkins, a guy who watches with grim
dismay as border patrolmen and Mexicans crossing over illegally clash in
South Texas. It's not the border that troubles him.
He's bothered by the way that these American enforcers those who strive
so intently to trespass on U.S. soil.
The problem reaches a breaking
point when Perkins' best friend Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is shot and killed in a tragic mishap.
An aging, irascible fellow, Perkins determines to find the shooter and
deliver some good old-fashioned justice. Why not call the cops? Perkins
suspects that the cops don’t want to trouble themselves over the corpse
of “a wetback,” but he’s even more driven to even the score when he
learns that the shooter was a border patrolman.
Mike Horton (Barry Pepper) is a jittery and violent
new member of the Texas Border Patrol, fast with his fists and quick on
the trigger. He just arrived in the area with his young wife Lou Ann
(January Jones), whom he uses for quick and grossly self-centered sexual
satisfaction. The thrill is gone, clearly, for both
of them, and it’s hard to believe it
was ever there at all. She quietly, wearily surrenders to his
fifteen-second fits without taking her eyes off of the soap operas,
where beleaguered wives vent the anger that she’s too numb to express.
Even though he's now a killer, it seems
probable that Horton will go on with his
routine of beating Mexicans, passing his patrol time with pornography,
and then screwing his wife when he gets home. Even though his
supervising patrolman frowns on Horton’s recklessness, he’s not likely
to deliver anything more than a slap on the wrist, while the local
police would rather just bury Melquiades’ corpse and forget the whole
So Perkins decides that it's time
to make Horton walk a mile — or, actually,
lots of miles — in Melquiades' shoes. He
appoints himself as the dark angel of
justice, nabbing Horton and dragging him down to Mexico with plans to
teach him a lesson. What follows is as hot and dusty as it is rough and
bloody. The landscape on the other side of the border does not offer the
comforts of diner food and air-conditioned trailers, much less shopping
malls. It is a region outside of time —
a mythic wasteland, full of
dangers and mysteries, dealing out hardship equally to crooks and
officers of the law, with only an occasional oasis of
comfort and culture.
Along the way, we learn more about Melquiades' past,
and discover that the patrolman’s assumptions about
the people south of the border are
We also learn that Perkins, charged with zeal to make
something meaningful out of his life, may not understand as much as he
thinks he does. He wants to deliver judgment, but does he even
understand the crime? How innocent a man was Melquiades anyway? Is
justice something that human beings can achieve on this earth,
considering that its champions are deeply flawed themselves?
Meanwhile, Lou Ann gets used to a lonely life back at
the border, wandering between their trailer home and the diner, where
she strikes up a tenuous friendship with a middle-aged, worldly-wise
waitress — Rachel (Melissa Leo).
Rachel mentors Lou Ann in how to cope with the
disappointments of marriage, luring her into extramarital adventures
with available men. (She herself is sleeping with Perkins and with
the cantankerous sheriff, played by Dwight Yoakam). Together, they begin making moral compromises
of their own as a way of surviving the arrogance, immaturity, and
dishonesty of their men.
Thus, The Three Burials becomes more than just
a story of sin and consequences. It asks us to consider how cultures
clash without communicating; how men and women
use, abuse, betray, and idealize each other; how we respond to the call of conscience;
and how those who appoint themselves as judges will learn they are
ill-equipped to achieve it. It asks us, what is the nature of an
honorable man? An honorable woman? An honorable citizen? An honorable
officer of the law?
Each one of these characters is swerving astray from
the straight and narrow, but each one of them has a conscience — however
they have tried to bury it. Perkins’ conscience is the first to wake up,
as the most meaningful thing in his life —
his fatherly connection to Melquiades —
is destroyed. His quest to fulfill Melquiades’ request, to
return his body to the Mexican paradise he called “Jiminez”, becomes more
than just the fulfillment of a promise; it becomes an expression of his
own longing for peace. He too has led a life of dishonor and
indulgence. Perhaps his persecution of Horton is a reflection of his own
self-condemnation. Perhaps his journey becomes even more determined when
he realizes that a paradise on earth and a future with Rachel is
Jones proves to be a remarkable director, drawing
memorable performances from Pepper, Jones, and co-stars Melissa Leo and
Dwight Yoakam. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros) develops all of his characters into convincing and
unpredictable human beings, without plunging into the preposterously
extreme despair of his previous film, 21 Grams.
Together, they punctuate their Peckinpah-style
violence with a wicked sense of humor, some rewarding insights into
human nature, and imagery that radiates desert heat.
Viewers should be warned about
unflinching portrayal of violence and sexual misbehavior.
Personally, I found the intensity to be a bit wearying, which made it
difficult for me to feel much emotion during the dramatic finale.
Further, animal lovers should be warned about one horrifying scene of an
And yet, while the film comes with
a caution, it also deserves praise as a
memorable tribute to the fierce moral vision of
Jones' storytelling hero
great Christian storyteller, Flannery O’Connor.
Jones’ movie was fashioned in a way that clearly
reflects the influence of O’Connor on his imagination. He wrote his
dissertation on that great Southern writer, and there are echoes of her
methods in his own. O’Connor understood that human beings can’t be easily
divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Her stories are full of sinful
people, some of whom comprehend God’s mysterious ways more than others.
They are often characterized by shocking acts of wickedness and
dismaying conclusions. But they also give us glimpses of how God is in
the business of offering grace even as he lets evildoers stumble into
their own consequences.
The level of violence in
The Three Burials
has more to do with Peckinpah than
— I think even she would have turned
away from Jones' harsh imagery
at times, even though it does serve a
meaningful purpose in the story. I can't say that it's an entirely
pleasant two hours — but it'll stick with you.
It's a scorching journey alongside stubborn
fools like us as they stumble awkwardly toward grace, or run headlong in the other direction until the wages
of sin catch up with them.
Viewers will argue about whether their story reaches
a satisfactory conclusion. Personally, I found one character’s climactic
transformation to be confounding and unlikely, driven more by
desperation than a real change of heart. But the closing moment of the
film is profoundly affecting, an unexpected glimmer of hope that perhaps
our endeavors to do the right thing can make a difference
— perhaps some
of the seeds of grace we scatter on hard ground will occasionally take
* * *
A NOTE ABOUT THE STATE OF THE WESTERN AFTER
Famed Christian writer, recording artist, and actor
Pat Boone thinks Brokeback Mountain has
killed the genre of the Western.
"One of our country's finest exports for 75 years, the dramatic story
where lonely heroes fight desperate but victorious battles, where the
good guys always win and the desperadoes get what they deserve, has been
dealt a possibly fatal wound." Boone says he saw his friend Denzel
Washington "cringe" when he announced that Brokeback won the
Golden Globe for Best Film.
Well, first of all, Boone can stop worrying.
Brokeback hasn't broken anything. There are more Westerns on the
way… from films about Jessie James to Billy the Kid to an
internationally acclaimed film full of big hats, dusty horses, loaded
guns, and love of the heterosexual kind—The Three Burials of
Melquiades Estrada. Even Wim Wenders’ new film Don’t Come
Knocking could be interpreted as a Western, about a cowboy who
finally quits roaming the range and comes home.
Second, Boone might do well to wonder why he, as an
outspoken Christian, is so attached to the old model of the Western,
which champions men who resolve complicated matters with a pistol and an
arrogant tip of the hat. Christianity claims that “all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God,” and traditional Westerns encourage us
to resort to violent resolutions. They also encourage us to see the
world as a “good people versus bad people” situation, whereas the real
world is made up of bad people who should seek to resolve things with
peace and with grace wherever possible. There are no clean-cut good guys
in the world, and any mythology that tells us so could lead us to
disastrous misconceptions, whether on a personal or a national level.
(And some would say, it has.)
Further, who’s to say that a Western must have a
happy ending, “where the good guys always win and the desperadoes get
what they deserve”? In the real world, the good guys don’t always win.
In fact, if you look at the newspaper, or the scriptures, for that
matter, it’s clear that the bad guys win a lot of battles. The Christian
perspective would insist that the war is ultimately won not on the
strength of the good guys, but on the strength of God, whose actions
humble and mystify both the evildoers and those striving for
But there are other reasons that Boone should quit
worrying about the state of the Western. Dramas about gay people haven't
killed the drama; romantic comedies about gay people haven't ruined the
romantic comedy. If Boone wants to consider a Western that has truly
altered the way we look at them, he should consider Unforgiven,
which questioned whether one man and a rifle can really achieve peace
and justice in a complicated world.