The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) / Drama-Adventure

MPAA Rated: R for language, violence, sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 121 min.

Cast): Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Mel Rodriguez, Levon Helm, Cecilia Suarez
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga

Tommy Lee Jones makes his big screen directorial debut with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a quirky modern Western, with a screenplay written by the highly touted Guillermo Arriaga.  Like Arriaga's other popular works, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, this tale is told in nonlinear fashion, a writing device that, when used properly, can enhance a story's impact.  Other times, it can be more of a gimmicky distraction, adding faux depth to what might otherwise be a fairly routine storyline if told in chronological order. 

The fractured narrative in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada falls somewhere in between,  There are definitely deeper themes milling around beneath the surface story, with some subtle political commentary about the state of Mexican labor, border patrols, and the sometimes lawless abuses that many Mexicans face when trying in desperation to make a new life for themselves.  Arriaga's commentary is not ostentatiously overt, but it is always present, which does tend to make the overall story a bit difficult to take at face value, shifting into allegorical mode in ways that make what should be normal conversations and interactions seem odd and artificial.  When it works, it works well, although the problem is, it doesn't always work.

Jones (Man of the House, The Missing) also stars in the film, as aging Texas ranch hand Pete Perkins, good friend to the illegal alien Mexican known as Melquiades Estrada (Cedillo).  The film opens with Estrada's murdered corpse discovered out in the nearby desert to the small Texas town near the border, followed by Perkins frustration in getting the local law enforcement to care about bringing justice to the killer.  Perkins continues to try to apply pressure to little avail, slowly smelling a potential cover-up between the border patrol and the local authorities in trying not to make a big deal out of the death of what they believe is just another worthless illegal, with no real family or friends to care.  Not wanting to see a life of a friend go to waste, Perkins takes the law into his own hands, rounding up the likely culprit, the green recruit Mike Norton (Pepper, The Snow Walker), and going on a long and bizarre odyssey to make sure that Estrada gets his proper burial and justice.

While there is a sense of weight to the thematic elements of this interesting story, Jones never seems to have as full a grasp as he should in delivering those themes in a meaningful and powerful way.  I suppose this is the difference between a talented filmmaker like Arriaga and a relative novice like Jones, as the story is very ambitious, and practically necessitates the the man with the original vision of it to be the one to make it to its completion.  That's not to say that Jones does a poor job, as it is technically correct in the important ways.  It's just that there is a lackadaisical and unfocused sense to the story that is murky where it should have been illuminating, and a near-comical, quirky undercurrent to the characters and events that should have been more resonant and mysterious.

I realize that this might sound like a negative review, perhaps a bit more harsh than I really intend, but lavish critical praise practically forces me into detraction mode.  Despite my quibbling about the great movie that could have been, this is still an interesting and worthwhile film, filled with enough choice moments of thought-provoking intelligence to make it worthwhile.  Although the story is set in the modern day, this very much belongs in the Western category, with its themes of lawless lands and lone-dog vigilantes that seek to to what's right, no matter what the personal cost; Peckinpah practically made a career out of such things.

Yet, while all of this is admirable, it's hard for Arriaga's tale to avoid the shadow of a very similar movie, John Sayles' 1996 work, Lone Star, which delivered more realistic and richly developed characterizations, and a deeper sense of isolation, pessimism, and inundating melancholy.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo