We Were Happy Then
January Jones: How much did you use Julio, the real Julio, for weight?
Tommy Lee Jones: We did a whole lot of photography of the latex Julio, but the latex Julio just really wasn’t as good.
January Jones: You mean it didn’t weigh as much?
Tommy Lee Jones: It didn’t weigh as much. And it didn’t look as dead.
—Commentary, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
“I can’t tell you how many times they tried to talk me out of the colors of these titles,” says Tommy Lee Jones. “I don’t know what they wanted, but they couldn’t understand those Mexican pastels.” Jones, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones are watching the first moments of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Pink, blue, pale green: the colors do evoke a certain Southwestern-ness. More obviously, they stand out against the dried out hues of the desert where a couple of men with guns discover the body that initiates the plot. And so the colors underline the death at the film’s center.
Jones’ drawl suggests his weary wonderment at “their” obtuseness. What he doesn’t have to say is that the location, attitude, and story in his directorial debut are all very familiar to him. Three Burials is a movie he seems destined to make, at once gorgeously detailed, subtly political, and crisply allusive. Jones knows his Peckinpah and his Leone, certainly, not to mention his Ford and Huston (he says he “stole” a close-up shot of a man exiting a truck from Huston, then explains how difficult it was to manage, noting that the guy can’t close the truck door or it would hit the camera).
Jones puts his knowledge to subtle, sometimes too-earnest use, shot after shot composed of beautiful light and striking imbalances. Repeatedly, men are framed by car windows or pushed up against fences (“There’s a lot of diamond mesh in this scene,” says Jones on one occasion, “fences and walls that we see through”), and women smoking what January Jones calls her character Lu Ann’s “super skinny cigarettes,” looking pale and bluish under fluorescent diner lights.
Each of these images underscores the limits of the movie’s South Texas. While it features the usual images—wide sky, endless roads—it also looks closely at folks’ frustrations. As they inhabit cheap motel rooms, long narrow trailers, and plastic-wood-walled apartments, a cowboy named Pete (Jones) and sheriff Frank Belmont (Yoakam) look tired, their faces gnarled. As Jones observes of one scene where Yoakam appears undressed, a pillow on his crotch as he sits with his lover, his sunburned face makes a telling contrast with his “fishbelly white” body: these are men without horizons, just routines stretching before them.
But the death of Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo), a Mexican cowboy come to South Texas in search of work, inspires Pete, his friend and employer, to imagine himself in other contexts, broadly moral, responsible to ideals as well as people. Pete decides that he’ll keep a promise he made to Mel before he died, to return his body to his hometown in Mexico, for proper burial.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga, the film’s disjointedness recalls his previous scripts, for Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Here again, connections between past and present are both fractured and underlined. (Yoakam calls it “21 Grams meets Treasure of Sierra Madre, and observes of a scene where U.S. border guards chase down Mexicans trying to cross, “The randomness of it being so non-sequential, it’s great. It’s so true to life in terms of you know, life is out of sequence”). The fragmented structure—as much as the gorgeous cinematography by Chris Menges—suggests at once chaos and confinement: there’s no way out of this lunacy.
Though Pete’s memories of his short friendship with Mel dominate the film’s visual register, they are in turn dominated by the vast desert, with towns and border patrollers and goats and diners hardly making a dent in it. “If you turn the movie sound off and just watch the movement of [the movie],” says director Jones, “and try to look at the way a dog or a bird would, and not recognize any shapes, it’s quite pleasing, it’s a balletic event. It moves beautifully. The shapes and colors have an abstraction.”
So do Pete’s memories, which both blur and fix your understanding of place at any given moment. Pete 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.
Born of myth and hope, fear and repetition, Three Burials is forged in images more than dialogue. “If you read the script,” Jones tells his two actors, “really, it doesn’t look like anyone is saying anything that actually matters. The important thing about casting this movie, yourselves included, was to find people who could read. Once you can find somebody who can read, and then think about reading, you’re well on your way to having a movie.” 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 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 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, 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 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 Frank. That she lead Lu Ann into a one-afternoon’s diversion in a motel room with Mel is only more grotesque irony, hardly meaningful expect for you, because you see the connections Lu Ann, and, of course Mel, cannot.
Frank 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. Determined to make Mike respect his victim, Pete drags him along 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.
Brutal and angry, Mike’s initial designation as a guard of borders grounds Three Burials’ layers of storytelling. Pete abuses him mightily for his ignorance, punching, kicking, and pistol-whipping him whenever Mike even thinks about resisting during their journey (“I love him coughin’ up that blood,” says Yoakam in the commentary, during one such assault). As Pete, Mike, and Frank all endeavor to maintain borders, Mel crosses them and so, recreates them, suiting Pete’s fantasy, charming Lu Ann, securing 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.
Mike can only learn to see, or die. He and Pete come on a band of Mexicans who offer them a moment’s rest in front of a tv they’ve got rigged up in the desert. Playing the same English-language soap Mike had watched his wife watch back in Texas, he’s struck, suddenly, and begins to weep. “We were happy once,” a character says, “We will be happy again. Please, don’t cry.” It’s so ludicrous, it’s magical. Mike’s battered face winces, he can barely get up on his feet again when Pete insists they be on their way. The Mexicans watch him stumble away, tearful. When, at film’s end, Mike seems to “finally get it,” as January Jones observes, it seems both right and heartbreaking. He’s learned, says Yoakam, “to be benevolent.” At last they lay Mel’s decaying corpse to rest. Serving as metaphor and reality, it indicates both a respect for and the limit of legend.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - Theatrical Trailer