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.