Friday, December 16, 2005

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - Movie Review

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 2005

Ah, cowboys! We love ‘em. Sometimes they love each other. A lot. This is not that kind of film. This concerns the platonic love of two cowpokes, one a weather beaten hombre, the other an illegal vaquero who has crossed over in search of work. The setting is a Podunk border town in Texas – what other kind are there? The drama happens when the title character is offed by a trigger happy racist border patrolman, newly arrived with Barbie® doll wife in tow. Oh, relax – we didn’t give his death away, look at the frigging title, would ya? Our lead character, Pete Perkins is played by Oscar winning movie star, Tommy Lee Jones in a fabulous performance that earned him the Best Actor prize at this years Cannes Film Festival. And he is also the director! We know, we know. Not another movie star turned director. Fortunately in this case, Tommy has done a fine job.

The real drama begins when Pete vows to find the man that killed his best friend, Mel and to help him fulfill his promise of burying his bestest amigo back in his hometown in Mexico. Hence, the three burials. And yes, that does mean that for a good portion of the film, we get to see Tommy Lee drag the corpse of a rotting wetback across the vistas between the old and new worlds. It’s like “Unforgiven” meets “Weekend at Bernie’s”. But in a good way. The racist border patrolman is played by that expert in flinchy ne’er do wells, Barry Pepper. The rest of the cast is probably Tommy Lee’s finest achievement as the director. He has a great eye at casting actors that not only look the part, but carry their stories on the surface as well as their convoluted interiors. We were thrilled to see some favorite faces. Melissa Leo as the wise, but slutty local waitress who juggles men as well as plates. And our two favorite singing actors, Dwight Yoakam and Levon Helm in picture perfect performances as a reticent Sheriff and a lonely old blind man encountered along the trail. Relative newcomer January Jones, is also a delight as the patrolman’s wife, who whiles away the small town doldrums with her own secret ways.

With its multi storyline and desert town setting, it reminded us of the great “Lone Star” made by John Sayles. Both films deal with similar locales, racial tension and past sins haunting the present. While “Lone Star” is grand entertainment painted on a broader canvas, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” focuses tightly on the power of promises made. Whether it is the casual betrayal of a bored spouse or the pure bonds of friendship that transcends death, the implied hope for the future is continually called into question. With the macabre odyssey into Mexico to return Melquiades to his homeland, the film runs the risk of teetering off into the ridiculous, or worse, the cinematic hellhole of “revisionist Western.”

Thankfully, Tommy Lee has found a comfortable directorial saddle, and is riding this through in an enviable fashion. He accepts the ludicrousness of the situation, and doesn’t flinch from it. He is also a talented artist that should be commending for helming his own rock solid performance. It is no wonder he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, certainly back in May the pickings were mighty slim. Now, towards years end, he finds himself amongst a stronger playing field, and while he could get lost during the last minute Oscar shuffle – we are pulling for ole Tommy Lee to snag a nomination. It would be his first for the Lead Actor category, and that in retrospect is a crime. For three decades he has contributed solid work, in a broad range of searing drama, action flicks to science fiction buddy pics. And we for one are still pissed at the Academy for ignoring his noble work in the classic “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Special mention to fellow Cannes prizewinner, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, a frequent collaborator of the great Alejandro González Iñárritu. The screenplay is a solid piece of work, and with Tommy Lee firmly in the director's chair and the ever reliable Chris Menges in charge of capturing the images – “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is well worth your time and money. While it is certainly a hard sell for casual filmgoers, those of you who are interested in more substantial fare will be rewarded. Bless you all!

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Guillermo Arriaga

Tommy Lee Jones as Pete Perkins
Barry Pepper as Mike Norton
Julio Cesar Cedillo as Melquiades Estrada
Dwight Yoakam as Sheriff Belmont
January Jones as Lou Ann Norton
Melissa Leo as Rachel
Levon Helm as Old Man with Radio
Vanessa Bauche as Mariana

Cinematography by Chris Menges
Film Editing by Roberto Silvi
Costume Design by Kathy Kiatta
Original Music by Marco Beltrami
Production Design by Merideth Boswell
Art Direction by Jeff Knipp
Set Decoration by Phil Shirey