The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (15)

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Screening at FACT from 14th-20th April 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

This film was always going to be an intriguing proposition. For one thing, it was written by Guillermo Arriaga – the man behind such thoughtful and fascinating films as Amores Perros and 21 Grams. It also marks the big screen directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones, so what could the two achieve together? I was not disappointed by this emotional and intelligent picture, which raises important questions about friendship, vigilante justice and the rights of migrants.

Jones plays cowboy Pete Perkins, a man who likes a drink and a laugh but has an essential decency that separates him from many movie cowboys. When Mexican migrant Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) interrupts a roping competition, Perkins immediately shatters our expectations by befriending him. So you have your good guy. Another new arrival in the area is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) who has travelled from Cincinnati to Texas (about a thousand miles) to become a border patrol guard. After all, how dare these different coloured people move about to find work? The cheek of it! So you have your bad guy.

But any idea that the characters are one dimensional is quickly dispelled when they are brought together. Norton is indulging in some Hustler magazine inspired masturbation when he hears a shot. Once he’s quickly buttoned up he fires at the nearest Mexican, who just happens to be our Melquiades. Norton panics and dumps his victim in a shallow grave.

When the police find out about the killing, they decide it would it be expedient to hush it up. This infuriates Pete, and he feels compelled to take matters into his own hands. After kidnapping the killer, he forces him to exhume Melquiades’ rotting corpse from its official state grave. Together the three travel to Mexico, in attempt to fulfil his friend’s wish to be buried in his native village in Coahuila rather than in the land of the ‘billboards’.

This is an extraordinary film. Tommy Lee Jones is easy to sympathise with as the respectable man driven to extremes, while Barry Pepper is maddeningly conceivable as the extremely nasty man who is forced to examine his own prejudices. The harshly beautiful landscape mirrors the emotional journey that both undertake, while the clever cuts backwards and forwards in time remind us that there is more than one side to every story. Jones and Arriaga play with ambiguities in morality and humour, demanding almost as much from the audience as they do of the central characters. But despite all the effort - or probably because of it - this is a very enjoyable and rewarding ride.

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