Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo) is dead at the beginning of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. A Mexican cowboy come to South Texas in search of work, he’s actually unseen in this first scene. A couple of deputies happen by in their jeep, discovering a coyote gnawing at his body. One of them shoots the coyote, happy to have something to do. When they approach the body and look down on it (“Fuck,” moans the shooter), the film cuts to Pete (Tommy Lee Jones), who is vomiting.
It’s an appropriately gnarly and abrupt introduction to Mel and his friend Pete, setting in motion the film’s themes, namely, loss, vengeance, and redemption. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, the film’s disjointed timeline recalls those of his previous scripts, for Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Here again, connections between past and present are both fractured and underlined. Though Pete’s memories dominate the film’s visual scape, these memories are in turn dominated by the vast dry and beautiful desert, with towns and border patrollers and goats and diners hardly making a dent in its seemingly vast timelessness.
Pete’s memories thus blur and solidify your understanding of the place—and the grounds where Mel will be buried. He remembers meeting Mel for the first time or flashes back to one of their conversations about Mel’s hometown in Mexico, while he contemplates his next moves. Each of these moves is premised on Pete’s determination to return Mel’s body to Mexico, where he can be buried in the place he has described so vividly for Pete, a place that is breathtakingly beautiful and poetic, and especially, idealized. In his grief and rage over his friend’s murder, Pete reimagines himself as a deliverer of justice, bringing moralized order to the chaos of the American west.
In its visual aspect, this west resembles that memorialized in movies by John Ford, John Huston, and Sam Peckinpah (the journey plot recalls that of 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the only movie for which the director had final cut). It is born of myth and hope, fear and repetition. Punctuated by recurring and sometimes breathtaking shots of expansive dunes, dying trees, and brilliant flowers, and as well as the dangers posed by rattlesnakes, rough ground, and lost souls, Three Burials rejects national mythologies celebrating fate and daring. Instead, it offers unresolved relationships and petty frustrations, stories of men and women bound together by emptiness and unstated hopes for something else.
The formal plot does lay out three burials, each a kind of ritual and none quite adequate. The first is abrupt and barely glimpsed, though marked by a title: an overhead shot shows Mel’s not-quite-accidental shooter, border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), dragging the bloodied corpse to a shallow resting place, where the coyote will get hold of it. The film shows the shooting a couple of times, from different angles. Mel is tending goats and Mike is looking through a porn magazine, their separate routines colliding tragically in an instant, when Mel shoots at a coyote threatening the herd. Careless and angry at the world, dislocated and casually racist, Mike doesn’t even know what he’s shooting at, only taken by a panic when he hears Mel’s gun go off—a distant, potentially threatening ptew! that has him scrambling to get his pants back on and his own rifle—metaphorical and literal—into position.
Recently moved into a trailer home with his pretty blond wife Lou Ann (January Jones), former high school jock Mike resents his situation, but has no language for it. In this, he’s much like everyone else in the film, including craggy-faced Pete and Lu Ann, who spends her afternoons chain-smoking in the local diner, where she strikes up a friendship with the waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), married to the owner and assuaging her own boredom by sleeping alternately with Pete and the sheriff, Frank Belmont (Dwight Yoakam, inspired as always).
It is Frank who oversees the second burial, dumping Mel unceremoniously into a grave dug with a backhoe. Though Pete has specifically asked to be informed of the occasion, Belmont doesn’t, and worse, he refuses to investigate the death of some “wetback.” When Pete hears tell of Mike’s involvement (he confesses to another guard), he launches into an Old Testamenty mission, bursting into the cocky young man’s home, slamming him into walls and chairs, and tying up his wife (and leaving her gagged in an easy chair, tv on and remote nearby). Determined to make the now bloodied and bruised Mike respect his victim, Pete then drags him off on a passage to Mexico, where he plans to reunite the Mel with the family he’s seen in a snapshot. This would be the third burial.
Mike’s initial designation as guard of borders (and a pointlessly brutal one, at that) grounds Three Burials’ layers of storytelling and story-needing. Pete abuses him mightily for his ignorance, punching, kicking, and pistol-whipping him whenever Mike even thinks about resisting. As Pete, Mike, and Frank all endeavor to maintain borders, Mel crosses them and recreates them, imagining himself in order to suit Pete’s fantasy, charming Lu Ann, cementing Mike’s fate.
As Pete and Mike engage in a grisly version of a familiar bonding exercise, the film includes several iconic ironies, to note the familiarity of the conventions and so, confound their reality: as conventions (rituals, traditions, expectations), they take on their own lives, fulfilling desires that aren’t quite articulated. The travelers run across a blind man (Levon Helm) who listens to Mexican radio though he doesn’t speak the language (“I like the way Spanish sounds, don’t you?”), a flashback reveals that Lu Ann had her own brief encounter with Mel, instigated by Pete and Rachel (whose own relationship takes a dark turn when he asks her to marry him from a pay phone on the road. And Mike’s vile abuse of a Mexican woman who will be the one to nurse his snakebite: she treats the wound, as Pete demands, but she also gets her own vengeance.
While heavy-handed in concept, such moments take on a perversely delicate aspect in their renderings here )helped considerably by Chris Menges’ evocative cinematography). Among the movie’s many grim figures, Mel’s decaying corpse (badly preserved with anti-freeze) serves as metaphor and reality, an occasion for respect and the limit of legend.