The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Movie Review
Written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), the story is broken into several parts, each introduced by a chapter heading, jumping forward and backward in time. The action begins with two hunters coming upon the disinterred body of an illegal Mexican immigrant, Melquiades Estrada, who has been shot to death and hastily buried in a makeshift grave, only to have a coyote dig him up. The redneck sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) doesn't care enough about a dead Mexican to investigate his death, even though Melquiades' friend and employer, Pete Perkins (Jones), gives him evidence implicating a border patrolman.
Their conflict over the worth of a single human life, any and every single human life, is central to the film's overarching humanistic theme. Such material would play like a sermon in the hands of a lesser writer and director, but Burials is never preachy or self-congratulatory. Every time it seems like a message is on its way, Burials ducks away from what's expected and takes an interesting, unexpected turn.
Through a series of flashback sequences, Pete's suspicions about Melquiades' death are confirmed to the audience. Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is new to his job as a border patrolman. He and his pretty wife, Lou Ann, have just moved to Texas from Cincinnati and both of them are having trouble adjusting. Norton's anger flashes when he's on the job and he's reprimanded for punching a Mexican woman in the face during her apprehension. One day Norton pulls off to the side of a remote dirt road to look at porn when gunshots ring out. Panicked, Norton returns fire with his high-powered rifle and kills the distant gunman, who happens to be Melquiades. The trouble is, Melquiades wasn't firing at Norton. Melquiades was shooting at a coyote who was threatening the livestock he was tending, as evidenced by the wounded animal Norton passes on his way to inspect Melquiades' body.
Eventually the sheriff is tipped off that Norton is the killer but he decides doing anything about it is more trouble than it's worth. He buries Melquiades in a mismarked grave. However, a waitress at the local café overhears the sheriff and the tipster talking about the killing and tells Pete about their conversation. So Pete kidnaps Norton and forces him to dig up Melquiades's body for the second time. No matter what it costs him -- his freedom, his life -- Pete intends to make good on his promise to bury Melquiades in his hometown, and he wants Norton to come with him.
Their trek over the border, being chased by the border patrol, comprises the second half of the film. During this stretch Norton faces all manner of dehumanization, much like that faced by illegal immigrants. He's beaten repeatedly, he's forced to do hard labor, he's made a victim of the elements, and he's stripped of all that matters to him. It is impossible not to sympathize with him, even though Pepper's portrayal of Norton never invites identification and his character is utterly contemptible. Likewise, Jones plays Pete like a man on a mission, not a crusade. At his core, Jones's Pete is a force for integrity and mercy and goodness, but he's also violent and vengeful and rarely above reproach.
Filmmakers rarely attempt to sketch such a complex portrait. Even more rarely do they succeed. The narrative world created by Arriaga and Jones is as troubling and ambiguous as the one we live in. Burials forces the audience to identify with its villains and question its heroes. At times bleak and violent, at others sweet and humorous, Burials ultimately affirms the value of all humans, privileged and poor, good and evil, all of us -- and that's quite an achievement.
The DVD includes a commentary track from Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones.
Aka Los Tres entierros de Melquiades Estrada.