Film

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

The American West, in the new Tommy Lee Jones-directed film, resembles that memorialized in movies by John Ford, John Huston, and Sam Peckinpah.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio César Cedillo, Melissa Leo, January Jones
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-02-04 (Limited release)

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image