The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Llegó con tres heridas
la del amor,
la de la muerte,
la de la vida.

Con tres heridas viene
la de la vida,
la del amor,
la de la muerte.

Con tres heridas yo:
la de la vida,
la de la muerte,
la del amor.

– M. Hernandez (arranged and sung by Joan Baez)

There’s a scene in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada where the young woman who’s tending Mike Norton’s (Barry Pepper) wounds comes up to him smiling, checks to make sure he’s healing all right, hands him his medicine to drink, and then, still smiling, takes a pot of scalding hot coffee and pours it into his lap before hitting him full in the face with the emptied kettle.

It’s a scene that beautifully captures the spirit of the movie – its unexpectedness, its humour, its raging sense of injustice, its violence. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones (in a stunning directorial debut) Three Burials is that rarity in recent cinema, a serious, thoughtful and exquisitely beautiful film that manages to not take itself too seriously.

Three Burials is the story of the killing of Melquiades Estrada, an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a cowboy in Southern Texas, and the retribution that his friend (Jones) extracts from the border policeman (Pepper) who casually, if accidentally killed him. This is a gloriously shot movie – scene after scene captures the stark beauty of the Texan wilderness, doing for it what Ang Lee did for Wyoming in Brokeback Mountain. And the performances are superb – Pepper does a sterling job, and Dwight Yoakam as the pragmatic, reluctant sherrif is wonderful. As for Jones – his performance is a landscape in itself, every crag of expression in it first sharpened and then smoothed to weathered perfection.

But the real joy of the movie is its spirit – part McCarthy, part Llosa, with a smidgin of Ford thrown in for good measure. This is a delightful movie because of the way it alternates between whimsical farce, socio-political drama, and stark human poetry. Jones displays considerable mastery of his craft, blending the comic with the macabre, the tragic with the ordinary, blurring the line between justice, compassion and mania. It’s a movie that constantly surprises you, keeps you off balance and manages to be neither happy nor sad, but both at once. There is a great deal of brutality here, a great deal of almost casual violence, but it becomes, in the movie little more than a part of the scenery, against which the main characters play out their impassioned, desperate and at the same time deeply deluded lives.

Which is not to say that the movie gets everything right. There are too many sub-plots for my liking, too many little tangential stories, and while these are handled extremely well, they rob the movie of some of its momentum, muddy the cleanness of it, its essential clarity. And while some of the shifting back and forth in time (and scenes showing you the same event from multiple perspectives) is interesting, much of it seems contrived and self-indulgent, so that you can’t help wishing (as Anthony Lane does in his characteristically brilliant review) that they’d stuck to a more conventional narrative.

On the whole though, this is a superb film, one that celebrates the art of film-making and story-telling alike, and that serves as a perhaps timely reminder that you don’t have to have some deep political message to make a good movie – all you need is a good story and an instinct for the poetic in all of us.