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Movie Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

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When poor Melquiades Estrada, an illegal immigrant and ranch hand from Mexico, is shot and killed, it takes three burials to get the job done right and give him peace. This is the story of his death, his necrography if you will.

Julio Cedillo plays the character in the movie’s title, and upon coming to the US he befriends Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The two become fast friends, and, as if by premonition, Melquiades makes Pete promise to bury him in his small home town in Mexico should he precede Pete in death. Not long after, he is shot by an overly enthusiastic border patrolman, Mike Norton from Cincinnati, played by Barry Pepper. In shock over what he has done, Mike hastily buries Melquiades, but the body is discovered and before long Pete Perkins has tracked down his friend’s killer.

In the meantime, Melquiades has been reburied by the state, so Pete takes Mike hostage and forces him to exhume Melquiades. Traveling on horseback the two (or three, depending on how you look at it) begin a trek into Mexico so that Pete can keep his promise to his late friend.

That is the story in chronological order, but it is told to the audience with flashbacks that dance back and forth, often very quickly leading to occasional confusion as to which timeframe we are in. Other times it works well, revealing back story at just the right moment.

Though Tommy Lee Jones is the leading actor and ultimately the movie is about him, his friendship with Melquiades and perhaps — just perhaps — his sanity, the movie is very nearly an ensemble piece. I say very nearly because, though the movie takes time to develop other characters and other relationships — all of them interesting in their own right — these other roles fall one by one by the wayside until we are left with Pete, Mike and Melquiades in Mexico.

It is an odd, almost unbalanced structure which leaves a bit of an empty feeling: so many characters and relationships are developed through part or most of the movie only to reach an abrupt conclusion before the movie itself reaches its climax. In the end, apparently Mike and Pete are the ones who matter. And yet, the other characters grew on me as the movie progressed and I wanted them to matter more in the final act, especially since they were such integral parts of Mike and Pete’s world.

Another odd bit of structuring occurs near the end, when we are presented with a mystifying plot twist that will not be resolved. I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll just say that perhaps it is there to make us reflect on Pete, but it does leave one with, again, a sort of odd, empty feeling. On the one hand, there were those other characters who were well developed but who fizzle out of the story one by one, on the other an entire new subplot hits us near the end and little is done about it.

Still, there is more to praise in this film than to criticize. The actors are quite good, and Tommy Lee Jones has the good sense to use Spanish with subtitles when appropriate, rather than have the Mexican actors speak accented English amongst themselves. Jones himself often speaks Spanish in the film, though he opted for a rapid and slurred speech perhaps meant to mask his American accent.

The script, odd of structure though it may be, still relates a compelling tale, and Tommy Lee Jones manages to give just the right attention to the different roles necessary to develop them properly. There are touches of humor which will serve him well should he choose to direct other films, and there is no wasted space here. Each scene moves the story forward or tells important back story, but no scene seems rushed. They are balanced, with a good beginning, middle and end when appropriate, and do not hang around after their usefulness is done. This is a credit to the editor and to the director; I only wish that the story as a whole were just a bit better balanced, like the scenes of which it is comprised.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is an odd film, but a welcome addition. Though I have quibbles with its structure, I nevertheless was entertained and look forward to future endeavors from a man who has proved himself too talented to allow his masterful role in The Fugitive to overwhelm his career.

The Upside:
Well directed and edited, and the actors are quite good. The story is a compelling one.
The Downside:
The structure of the movie seems a bit off, and the rapid jumping around in time can occasionally disorient the viewer.
On the Side:
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada marks the directorial debut of veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Breaking down the Film:
The Story: C+
The Acting: B+
The Intangibles: B-
Final Grade: B-

Film Stats:
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Writing Credits: Guillermo Arriaga
Release Date: February 3, 2006 [Broad release] Country: USA
MPAA Rating: R for Language, Violence and sexuality.
Run Time: 121 min.
Studio: Sony Classics

By Matthew Alexander, a Staff Writer for Film School Rejects

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