Monday, April 24, 2006

Review - Hell (L'Enfer)

How do you follow a man like Krzysztof Kieslowski? The great Polish filmmaker, whose Dekalog and Three Colours trilogy beguiled filmgoers the world over, died in 1996, but his legacy is still being felt ten years on. Shortly before his untimely passing Kieslowski, along with regular writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, had begun work on a new trilogy, entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and now a new generation of filmmakers are bringing his work to the screen.

In 2002 German director Tom Tykwer directed Heaven, which turned out to be a massive disappointment. The film, starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, was a dull and faintly preposterous tale which lacked any of Kieslowski’s trademark style or grace. An unhappy Miramax dropped their option on the triptych, and for a while it looked like Kieslowski’s unfinished work would remain just that. Now, with Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic on board, the second instalment is finally with us. The film is Hell (L‘Enfer), and the first piece of good news to report is that it’s a much better film than Heaven.

Hell takes the old ‘three sisters’ structure as its starting point. The sisters here are Sophie, Céline and Anne, and they are played respectively by Emmanuelle Béart, Karin Viard and Marie Gillain (when your mother is played by Carole Bouquet I suppose that kind of beauty is just in the genes). Each of the women are embroiled in some sort of man trouble. Elder sister Sophie has become obsessed with the idea that her husband, a successful photographer, has been having an affair with one of his models. She has begun stalking around the hotels where she believes he is having his trysts and is becoming progressively more unstable. Anne, the youngest of the three, is struggling to cope with the fact that the teacher she was having an affair with has broken things off; and she has grown into something of a stalker herself, as she strives to win him back.

Which leaves Céline, a timid, repressed woman who is the only sister to keep in regular contact with their infirm mother. Céline takes long train journeys to sit with the mute, wheelchair-bound woman, and her life appears to be a lonely one. That is, until Sebastian (Guillaume Canet) appears on the scene. While her two sisters are stalking their men, Céline finds herself being stalked by this handsome stranger. She initially assumes he has some romantic interest in her but it soon becomes clear that he holds a secret which goes right to the heart of the family’s past, a secret which will reunite the three sisters for the first time in years.

Intrigued? You probably will be. Hell occasionally has the whiff of cliché and melodrama about it but the screenplay, which has been extensively reworked by Piesiewicz, reveals its secrets reluctantly, with the various revelations carefully timed to make maximum impact. Hell is precisely structured, making judicious use of flashbacks which take on new meaning as we learn more about the sisters’ past, and it has little trouble maintaining our interest as it slowly draws the threads together. Thematically, the film explores some of Kieslowski’s pet notions such as fate versus destiny, and the impact of the past on present events, but it handles them in a rather talky, straightforward style; and this is what hampers the film’s chances of living up to its creator’s high standards.

Kieslowski’s screenplays were little more than a template for the finished film. You didn’t come away from a Krzysztof Kieslowski picture with memorable dialogue rattling around your brain, or marvelling at the intricacies of the plot. Instead, a Kieslowski film left the viewer with a head full of stunning images, it left the viewer rhapsodising about the director’s incredible control of tone, his superb handling of the film’s conflicting emotions. There was a tangible sense of mystery about Kieslowski’s work, he was a director who preferred to suggest rather than explain, who was happy to leave tantalising gaps for the audience to fill, and quite often the film’s brilliance was dictated by what wasn’t there.

This is why Tanovic’s talk-heavy and didactic handling of Hell is frustrating. The film’s themes are laid out in long snatches of dialogue which reference Euripides' Medea, but the film feels burdened by all this discussion, when Kieslowski would have surely elected to show rather than tell. The film’s plotting also seems a little too schematic and mechanical at times; and while Kieslowski’s narratives were occasionally contrived, he never allowed the workings to show through. It may be a futile thought, but Kieslowski fans will find it hard to enjoy Hell without wondering throughout what the great man himself would have made of this material.

Hell’s cast is ridiculously classy, with actors like Jean Rochefort even popping up for brief cameos, and the three leading ladies all give first-rate displays. Béart is affecting and compelling as Sophie, her grief at her husband’s infidelity exploding in an almost feral manner, and Gillain gives a fine performance as Anne, although her role is the most underdeveloped of the three. But it’s the ever-excellent Karin Viard who stands out with a tremendous performance as Céline. She is brilliantly understated, displaying big emotions with the slightest alterations in her expression, and her sensitive work gains the bulk of the viewers’ sympathy for this downtrodden, insecure character.

The actors are Hell’s strongest suit, but there were numerous other things I liked about the film. It's an incredibly slick production, artfully shot, and it benefits from an atmospheric score. Tanovic shows some flair in his direction - I particularly liked the way he allowed his camera to hover over the action, perhaps suggesting an all-seeing force controlling events - and he shows an acute ability to find a bleak humour in many of the film’s darkest situations; which is unsurprising after his Oscar-winning No Man’s Land. Kieslowski devotees will also delight in spotting the numerous visual homages to his films which Tanovic sprinkles liberally across the picture.

Hell is ultimately a solid, extremely watchable picture, which is at the very least a vast improvement on Heaven. However, it never comes close to achieving the level of quality we have come to expect from Krzysztof Kieslowski. How could it possibly do so? You can take a Kieslowski story, add the finest actors and a talented director, and yet something irreplaceable is still missing - Kieslowski himself. Few filmmakers, living or dead, could direct a film like he could. His passing left an enormous void in the cinematic landscape which Heaven and Hell have been unable to fill. Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of cinema’s great figures, and it is understandable that modern filmmakers would long to tell his unfinished stories; but until we see Purgatory, this final testament to an extraordinary filmmaker will remain in limbo.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Review - American Dreamz

American Dreamz takes place in an America which is at war with Iraq, an America in which the president - a buffoonish, God-fearing Texan - is little more than a puppet for his shadowy advisers. It’s a country in which more people vote for the latest TV pop star than vote in the presidential elections, with the talent show in question being presided over by an arrogant Brit with a nice line in venomous insults.

Clearly, only the names have been changed to protect the blushes of those involved. American Dreamz is the brainchild of Paul Weitz, who burst onto the scene in 1999 when he and his brother produced American Pie, and who seems to have spent the subsequent seven years trying to distance himself from that hit, with his more mature and contemplative comedies About a Boy and In Good Company. With American Dreamz Weitz has decided that his likeable, lightly comic style is ready to take on some considerably bigger targets, but he misses the mark by some margin.

The president here is Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid, channelling Dubya), and the movie opens on the morning after his re-election for a second term in office. On a whim, Staton asks for the newspapers, and his sudden urge to read about world events rather than having a diluted version fed to him scares the hell out of his Cheney/Rove-alike chief of staff (Willem Dafoe). For weeks the president becomes a recluse, cancelling all public appearances while he delves into various papers and books, and press speculation hints at some sort of breakdown. The White House staff need to get their man back in the public eye, and what better way to reach the widest possible demographic than a guest spot on TV’s highest-rated show?

The host of American Dreamz is Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), an utterly corrupt, self-loathing character who seems to lack any human characteristics whatsoever. He is obsessed with the show’s ratings, in the opening scene his girlfriend announces that she’s leaving him but he seems far more interested with the latest figures which are being faxed through. He treats his employees like dirt and seemingly hates everyone he comes across equally. All in all, not a very nice man, and the film’s set-up - the world’s most powerful man coming together with the most powerful man on television - has potential, but Weitz still has a couple more stories that he’s determined to tell.

Despite the programme’s success, Tweed is tired of the endless conveyor belt of identikit contestants and he instructs his researchers to spice things up a bit by selecting an Arab. The Arab they choose is Omer (Sam Golzari), an would-be terrorist from Iraq who proved so incompetent that the powers-that-be sent him to the States to be a sleeper cell which they never intended to activate. However, that all changes when he gets picked for the show and his superiors give him the task of reaching the final, which the president will attend, and blowing the Commander in Chief to smithereens live on air.

Finally, there’s Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). Sally is a young wannabe star from Ohio who is determined to do whatever it takes to win. She exudes sweetness and innocence but an iron will and steely Machiavellian streak rages underneath. She’s even willing to use her dumb but lovable ex-boyfriend William (Chris Klein) to manipulate the viewers in her favour. The stories of these four principal characters slowly converge as the current season of American Dreamz heads towards an explosive finale.

With four distinct story strands to deal with Weitz has difficulty establishing a consistent rhythm and tone, and the first half of American Dreamz feels particularly diffuse. Weitz moves clumsily between the four characters, dragging his feet as he does so, and matters are exacerbated by the fact that genuine laughs are so thin on the ground. The jokes feel tired and predictable, and often disappointingly lowbrow given the film’s aspirations to be a sophisticated satire. Ultimately, the film cannot overcome its most obvious obstacle: how do you lampoon things like reality TV and the Bush administration when they have so clearly lapsed into self-parody long ago? There’s sharper political satire in a brief Daily Show segment than can be found in this film’s 107 minutes, and I’ll bet you’ll find more drama and emotion in a single episode of American Idol than Weitz’s version can muster.

There are amusing moments scattered messily throughout the film, but they tend to be provided by the cast who are the best aspect of the film. Weitz’s strong ensembles have occasionally smoothed over his films’ deficiencies in the past and, while they cannot fully salvage American Dreamz, they at least make things slightly more appealing. Hugh Grant now seems to have left behind the charming, foppish character which made his name, and his performances are all the better for it. His Martin Tweed is a something of a reprisal of his self-absorbed characters from About a Boy and Bridget Jones’ Diary, but given a much coarser edge, and he clearly relishes any opportunity to play the bastard. The other leading man, Dennis Quaid, is slightly less successful. His attempt to reproduce Bush is half-hearted and Staton is portrayed as such a clueless dope it prevents Quaid from investing his character with any weight, resorting instead to a series of befuddled looks which quickly grow stale.

The supporting cast offer a variety of fine moments between them, with Mandy Moore giving an excellent turn as Sally and Sam Golzari proving likeable and sympathetic as Omer. Willem Dafoe, displaying a bloated belly and a bald head, is hilarious as he proves once again what an adept and underused comic actor he can be, Chris Klein is on the kind of strong deadpan form we haven’t seen since Election, while Tony Yalda delivers a scene-stealing turn as Omer’s flamboyantly gay cousin.

After a particularly turgid opening half, American Dreamz improves significantly in its latter stages, as the disparate characters all come together for the show’s grand finale. Weitz even manages to create a decent amount of tension for once as the competition reaches its climax, but he still can’t resist his tendency to soften things at the finish. The soppy ending sees Omer’s vision of fame cause him to think twice about his actions, and the president learns to tell the truth about the issues facing the country. It’s all wrapped up in a disappointingly neat way and whatever toothless satire the film had possessed has long since disappeared.

Paul Weitz has bitten off more than he can chew with American Dreamz. He sets his film up as a satire on politics, television, and pretty much every other aspect of American culture - but his targets are too obvious and his film lacks bite. This kind of film is clearly not Weitz’s forte and one wonders what a savvier, more cynical filmmaker could have made of the same material. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. American Dreamz must be filed away in the bulging drawer marked ‘missed opportunity’; and while a few fine performances prevent it from being a complete washout, it’s very far from the stuff dreamz are made of.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Review - Junebug

Can a single performance change one’s perception of a whole film? Certainly in the case of Junebug, one performance - a sensational, radiant turn from Amy Adams - takes this rather underpowered slice of southern whimsy and wrestles it into something which is almost worth seeing. Junebug is a family reunion comedy-drama, the likes of which we’ve seen a numerous times before. A young man takes his successful wife from Chicago back to the small country town where he grew up, and their city lives could hardly be more different from the way his family and their neighbours live. Surely, we imagine, it is only a matter of time before this cultural mismatch leads to comical situations and sparks flying; but in Junebug they never really do.

Alessandro Nivola has the role of prodigal son here. He is George, a handsome young man who left his hometown in North Carolina three years ago to work in Chicago, although we never learn what exactly he does for a living. Perhaps he is connected to the art world in some way? After all, the film does open at an auction, which is being run by Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), and it’s here that she first lays eyes on George. Before the opening credits have begun George and Madeleine are in each other’s arms, and by the time film starts properly they’re married! “Where did you come from?” Madeleine asks as George kisses her against a wall. Well, she’s about to find out.

Madeleine is on her way out to North Carolina to try and sign up a reclusive artist who would fit in with her ‘outsider art’ gallery, and while they’re out there George takes his wife to meet the family. There’s his parents, passive dad Eugene (Scott Wilson) and suspicious mother Peg (Celia Weston), and his surly brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie). There’s a slight tension in the air, and clearly some bad blood between Johnny and George, but one member of the family is thrilled to see the visitors and welcomes Madeleine with open arms; Johnny’s heavily pregnant wife Ashley.

Ashley is a chatty, ridiculously upbeat, permanently optimistic young woman and she is played by Amy Adams in an utterly beguiling, ultimately heartbreaking way. The film, pedestrian and lazy for much of its opening twenty minutes, suddenly ignites as soon as she appears on the screen; her tangible excitement at George and Madeleine’s impending arrival lends a real comic energy to proceedings. Ashley instantly sees the sophisticated Madeleine as a soul mate, overpowering her with a barrage of questions as soon as she walks through the door. “I was born in Japan” Madeleine states as she attempts to answer some of Ashley’s queries, “you were not!” squeals an astonished Ashley, her eyes widening like saucers with delight and bewilderment. As far as Ashley is concerned, the exotic Madeleine may as well have been born on a distant planet.

This role is something of a test. A chatterbox like Ashley, full of genuine goodness and innocence, could quickly become an irritating character, but Adams pulls it off. When Madeleine tells her that she enjoyed reading and horseback riding as a child Ashley asks “at the same time?” - in Ashley’s eyes, Madeleine is capable of anything. Her idolisation of George’s big-city wife is sweet and touchingly portrayed, as is her devotion to her husband, despite receiving very little love in return. Adams takes a role which could have been little more than comic relief, and invests it with such heart that she becomes the most well-rounded character on show.

Junebug was written by playwright Angus MacLachlan, only his second screenplay in 15 years, and it seems light on details. MacLachlan clearly hopes that the viewer will be willing to fill in many of the gaps themselves, but a number of the characters are so frustratingly opaque they make audience identification extremely hard. Take Alessandro Nivola‘s George, for example. It’s his family we’re visiting, and yet he is absent for much of the film, offering little more than an enigmatic smile when he is present. There is clearly something in the past which is making his return a little fraught, but it remains tantalisingly out of reach. George’s absence for large periods leaves something of a void in the film, a piece of the puzzle which has been thrown away to prevent us from putting it all together.

Nivola is a talented actor but he is hamstrung by poor characterisation here. The rest of the cast is strong, with Celia Weston making an strong impression as Peg; and it was nice to see MacLachlan and take care over the portrayal of Madeleine. In many films such as this it would have been easy paint her as the uptight, self-obsessed with from the city, but Madeleine really does try (admittedly in an occasionally ham-fisted way) to make a connection with the family, and it seems a bit rich of the aloof George to chastise her late on for chasing a business deal instead of coming to the hospital for the birth of Ashley’s baby.

Madeleine is desperate to sign painter David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), a near autistic artist living in a tiny shack whose revisionist, sexually explicit images of the Civil War are taken as masterpieces by the art dealer. Taylor’s performance as Wark is quite remarkable, speaking in a stream of consciousness about the way his pictures came to him in a vision. He paints the black slaves uprising against their owners, each of them displaying a huge erection, and each of them also with a white face; he claims he cannot paint a black man’s face because he has never seen one. Aside from Ashley, Wark is the only character who really gains the viewers’ interest. Again, he’s a character who could have slid into stereotype but who remains convincing thanks to a fascinating portrayal.

Junebug often seems in danger of patronising small town folk, but it thankfully never crosses that line. Phil Morrison’s curious direction seems intent on placing us into the slower paced rhythm of southern life; he often fills the time between scenes by letting his camera settle, Ozu-style, on empty rooms, or allowing the sound from one scene to bleed across into another. This approach occasionally works to hypnotic effect, but more often than not it only serves to make things appear overly ponderous and flat. Patience is the watchword for viewers of Junebug, and I’m not sure the rewards are ultimately worth the wait.

Junebug does contain some superb scenes. One in particular, a scene in which George is forced to sing a hymn, is one of the year’s best - a wonderfully affecting sequence which Morrison allows to play out in its own time. There are beautiful touches here and there throughout the film, with the director displaying some acute observation and a keen ear for dialogue; and Adams’ display shines like a beacon in every scene she appears in. But Junebug never really adds up to much. It never threatens to go into any unexpected territory and it simply gives us a cinematic scenario we’re all familiar with, only offering a superficially different filmmaking slant on things.

The question remains, is it worth seeing for Amy Adams alone? I think it is. Junebug is her film; it’s a truly lovely performance which will live in my memory when the rest of the film has faded away. When she’s on screen you simply can’t take your eyes away from her, and when she’s not there she’s sorely missed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Review - The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale, an often excruciating study of a broken marriage, establishes its tone in the opening scene. It’s a family tennis match, with dad Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his 16 year-old son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) taking on mother Joan (Laura Linney) and younger sibling Frank (Owen Kline). What should be a friendly doubles match soon degenerates into naked hostility, as Bernard’s competitive streak comes to the fore. “Hit it into her backhand, it‘s weak” he tells Walt, and he’s soon firing blistering shots directly at his increasingly furious wife. The match ends abruptly amid familiar squabbles and the boys prepare for a very uncomfortable drive home. Clearly, the Berkman marriage is heading for the rocks, and the battle lines have been drawn.

As the Berkmans’ marriage falls apart the two sons take sides. Walt stands by his father, whom he idolises, and accuses Joan of ditching Bernard because his recent books haven’t been as successful as they used to be. In contrast, the younger, more sensitive Frank wants to stay at home with his mother, especially when he sees the rundown old house Bernard has moved into across town. In the end the family settles on a joint custody plan, with the parents having the boys on alternate days, but this approach doesn’t do much to ease the tensions and difficulties which this situation has raised. As one of Walt’s friends perceptively points out, “joint custody blows”.

It’s a case of art imitating life for writer/director Noah Baumbach. The Squid and the Whale is heavily autobiographical and many scenes have the unmistakeable ring of truth having been lifted directly from his own experiences. Baumbach takes us on an often painful journey through the debris of the Berkmans’ marriage, but the film is also full of wonderfully funny moments - the kind of moments which make us laugh because we recognise them to be true. This blend of black comedy and piercing drama is a careful balancing act to pull off, and it’s one which Baumbach mostly handles with aplomb.

Any good family drama needs a memorable patriarch, and The Squid and the Whale benefits from having the magnificent Jeff Daniels in the lead role of Bernard Berkman. Bernard is a wonderful creation. One can only guess at how closely the character is based on Baumbach’s own father (the novelist Jonathan Baumbach), but I doubt he would be flattered by the portrayal. He’s an awesomely self-absorbed character, fully convinced of his own brilliance and of everyone else’s deficiencies. He dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens” and describes Franz Kafka as “one of my predecessors”, lines which habitually find their way into the mouth of his admiring son Walt.

Daniels has long been one of American cinema’s most underrated and underused actors and here, sporting a heavy beard which seems to drag his whole face down a couple of inches, he gives the best performance of his career so far; fully inhabiting Bernard’s imperious sense of self-importance, although his eyes betray the true emotions of a man who has seen his acclaimed status in literary circles slide into irrelevance. His latest manuscript has only met with an endless series of rejection letters and he can barely disguise his jealous anger at his wife’s increasing success as a writer.

The performances from the two children caught in the marital crossfire are exceptional too. Walt is insufferably pretentious and longs to be like his father. He describes The Metamorphosis as Kafka’s masterpiece, despite having never read it, and when his girlfriend asks him for his analysis of the book’s ending he mumbles an answer along the lines of “well…it’s very ambiguous…very Kafkaesque”. His obsession with living up to his father’s image and winning his approval is tangible, and Eisenberg (who was hugely impressive in 2002’s Rodger Dodger) manages to keep Walt’s irritating, occasionally obnoxious behaviour grounded in reality. Younger brother Frank is played by Owen Kline, the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he delivers a confident, natural display as the mummy’s boy who reacts to the divorce by experimenting with alcohol, swearing and masturbation.

In fact, the only character who doesn’t really come to life is Joan, whose role is a little underdeveloped in comparison to the three male members of the Berkman family. Joan is perfectly played by the ever-excellent Laura Linney, but Baumbach doesn’t seem to have realised her role as fully, giving her little to work with aside from an affair with Frank’s tennis instructor (an inspired cameo from William Baldwin). Bernard has a fling of his own, with one of his writing students, but these scenes of an older man and a young seductress are slightly tainted by the fact that the actress in question is Anna Paquin who played Daniels’ daughter in Fly Away Home.

Baumbach’s direction of The Squid and the Whale is rough and ready, shooting in 16mm and using handheld cameras to capture the film’s raw emotions. Baumbach has worked with Wes Anderson in the past - who acts as a producer on this film - and some viewers may be tempted to draw comparisons with Anderson’s own portraits of familial discord; but Baumbach’s down-to-earth style is much more effective than Anderson’s crafted, self-consciously quirky approach. With so much of the film rooted in his own background, The Squid and the Whale is often painfully honest and it doesn’t shy away from confronting the effects of divorce head-on. Having said that, I never really felt moved by the film. I often found it stark and lacerating, but it didn’t really get under my skin; it always seemed more likely to provoke tears of laughter than tears of sadness.

This lack of an emotional climax to the film is frustrating, especially after Baumbach rarely puts a foot wrong in the first two thirds of the film. In fact he doesn’t seem to know how he wants his picture to end and he leaves us with a disappointingly pat climax which teeters on the edge of cliché, making the central ‘squid and whale’ metaphor overly explicit in the process. Nevertheless, The Squid and the Whale is still an admirable piece of work, an intelligent, mature and fascinating film which is sharply written and acted with real skill. It has clearly been a very personal project for Baumbach and he can be proud of what his labour of love has become. Whatever the merits and flaws of The Squid and the Whale, one can only hope its making has been a cathartic experience for the director.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Review - The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

It sure is an impressive sight; harsh and intimidating, full of mountainous peaks, deep valleys and wide open plains. I’m describing, of course, the magnificent landscape of Tommy Lee Jones’ face; a visage which, when allied to his dead-eyed stare and coldly sardonic drawl, makes Jones a singularly recognisable actor in contemporary cinema. It’s something of a surprise that Jones hasn’t made more westerns, as few actors around could be more suited to the genre, and one could easily imagine him being the kind of actor Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone would have loved to have cast in one of their own efforts a few decades ago.

Now Jones has stepped behind the camera for the first time (not counting a made-for-TV western ten years ago) with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Scripted by Amores Perros and 21 Grams scribe Guillermo Arriaga, the film is a contemporary western in which Jones also takes the lead. He plays Pete Perkins (which seems an unsuitably cheery name for such a gruff and taciturn fellow), a rancher in Texas who makes a promise one day to his close friend, the eponymous illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), that he will take the Mexican’s body back to his home town should he die in the United States. Pete hardly believes that day will come to pass but it occurs sooner than he could imagine, as Estrada is shot and killed by hot-headed Border Patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper).

The authorities cover up the incident but Pete won’t be silenced and he begins making his own investigations into his friend’s death. When he discovers the identity of the killer, his retribution is unusual to say the least. He kidnaps Norton, forces him to dig up Estrada’s corpse, wear the dead man’s clothes, and accompany him on the long journey to his victim’s homeland.

The story of Three Burials is a fairly straightforward one but, as this is a Guillermo Arriaga script, the waters instantly become muddied. Arriaga’s Amores Perros and 21 Grams were both interlinking triptychs which were adroitly handled by fellow Mexican Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu. Here, Arriaga sticks mostly to the central story, but he still manages to take it down a number of sidetracks and byways, populated by a series of extraneous characters, before finally settling down to the business of the conclusion; and this is what makes the two-hour long Three Burials a frustrating experience.

Like 21 Grams, the chronology of Three Burials is something of a jumble. We open with the discovery of Estrada’s corpse and the film then jumps back and forth, with the subsequent scenes occurring before and after the pivotal murder, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the order of various sequences. The decision to play around with a story’s order in such a manner is always a risk and tends to provoke the question: what would we lose, or gain, if the filmmakers simply decided to tell the story straight? I always suspected that the mixed-up timeline of 21 Grams masked various deficiencies and inconsistencies in Arriaga’s story and here it has the effect of making a simple tale unnecessarily obtuse.

In some scenes Estrada is dead, while in others he is alive; we see Norton’s anguish after his actions, and then we jump back to experience his home life with bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones). Arriaga also grafts on a few supporting characters, such as waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo) who is having extra-marital relations with both Pete and local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). The story flits from one character to another, back and forth in time, like a buzzing fly; and we are never given sufficient time to find out who these people are, and how exactly they relate to one another. Jones occasionally manages to pull off a filmmaking coup with this approach, such as the startling moment when, during a routine visit to the mall, Norton flashes back to the moment he felt Estrada’s blood on his hands for the first time, but moments with this kind of effectiveness are few and far between.

However, this chronological game-playing is thankfully set aside after the first third of the film has elapsed, and when Pete sets off with his captive and corpse in tow, the film settles into a distinctly different rhythm, one which presents its own set of problems. Three Burials has a deliberately slow pace and Jones takes the time to let cinematographer Chris Menges capture some breathtaking images in the bleak and vast setting. This section of the film occasionally recalls the work of great western directors such as Ford, Hawks, Eastwood, Leone, and above all Peckinpah, whose Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is surely an influence. There are a number of oddly comic touches en route, as Pete tenderly cares for the rotting corpse of Estrada, but these scenes are more weird than genuinely funny - as if Peckinpah had directed Weekend at Bernie’s - and they distance us further from the leading character as they are surely the acts of a man with a looser grip on sanity than Pete appears to have.

Even while Pete plods to his destination, Arriaga can’t resist taking him off the beaten track. There is an encounter with a blind old man (a memorable cameo from Levon Helm) which is a pleasant diversion, but there’s also a ridiculous and overlong sequence in which Norton is bitten by a snake and Pete has to enlist the help of a group of immigrants. Conveniently, the Mexicans who help Norton out include a couple he caught at the border and beat up earlier. This is another unfortunate aspect of Arriaga’s screenplay; all the Mexicans on show, be they illegal immigrants or happy locals, are depicted in an almost saintly light while too many of the white American characters on show are two-dimensional portraits whose hatred for ‘wetbacks’ is undisguised. Norton soon learns that these Mexican chaps aren’t so bad after all, but his journey to ‘redemption’ is a woefully schematic and unconvincing aspect of the film.

Jones certainly shows that he can direct. He occasionally delivers a powerful scene, and his work with the actors is fine throughout. Pepper is particularly impressive, working overtime to fully express the agony Norton’s actions have caused him, and Jones’ laconic leading display holds things together well enough. But the film is all over the place at times, a strangely misjudged and self-indulgent addition to the genre which aspires to be considered alongside the greats but never coheres into a satisfying whole. The ending is confusing and anticlimactic, made even more so by the fact that we still don’t believe Pete and Estrada’s friendship was strong enough to drive a man to these lengths. “Just bury him”, I wanted to shout at the screen as Jones’ long trip drifted into tedium; I just wanted to see Melquiades Estrada rest in peace, so we all could finally go home.