(Gala Presentation, USA/France, 120 minutes)
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo
As “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (to be known henceforth as “Three Burials” because I’m too lazy to type that damn title) unfolded before me, I came to a realization: Tommy Lee Jones must be one unique dude, if this oddly compelling and surprisingly funny directorial debut is any indication. “Three Burials” picked up two awards earlier this year at Cannes (best screenplay and best actor for Jones) so there’s certainly a curiosity factor. How’d a good ol’ boy like Jones impress the jury at the biggest film festival in the world? Well, he starts with a great story populated by well-drawn, complex characters.
Writer Guillermo Arriaga is best known for his collaborations with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (most notably “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”) and he continues here with his overlapping, time-shifting style. But while in his previous films the stories don’t come together until the last moments, in “Three Burials” everything connects at the halfway point, where the film becomes a very focused, character-driven drama. Rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) has a unique friendship with his Mexican ranch hand, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). In flashbacks, we see that their comraderie is unusual in the often racist Texas bordertown where they live. Pete and Mel aren’t boss and subordinate, they’re truly equals, working together with mutual respect. When Mel is found shot to death in front of his humble desert home, Pete turns to local law enforcement – represented mostly by the hapless and lazy sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) – and finds a determined unwillingness to pay any attention to the case.
In fact, Mel is unceremoniously buried in a nearby plot for John and Jane Does, pretty much along with the investigation into his death. But Pete made a promise to Mel once: that if Mel died in Texas, his body would be sent back to his home town in Mexico to be buried near his family. And take him back to Mexico is just what Pete determines to do. Meanwhile, a newly minted border patrolman (Barry Pepper) arrives in town with his new bride (January Jones) and soon gets himself into trouble with his quick temper and brutal actions. His marriage is already failing due to boredom and neglect; his wife soon hooks up with a café waitress (Melissa Leo) and becomes a housewife/prostitute. And when his path crosses with Pete’s, he’s taken on a hellish journey that will change his life.
While Pete’s ultimate goal is a very solemn one, “Three Burials” is filled with a tongue-in-cheek humor that may not come across immediately. In fact for some time the only ones laughing were myself and the woman beside me, and we wondered why no one else was. But there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s plenty of humour here, often deadpan and sometimes quite dark (such as the lengths to which Pete goes to preserve Mel’s corpse on the way to Mexico).
I thought of “Three Burials” as a kind of representation of what dinner with Tommy Lee Jones might be like: long, twisting stories filled with rich characters, told with a twinkle in the eye over shots of tequila, satisfying, strange and unforgettable.