Best known for his scripts for fellow Mexican, Alejandro Gonzales Iñaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and the upcoming Babel), Guillermo Arriaga provides yet another non-linear chronological puzzle of a story about (no points for guessing — the pattern is becoming clear by now) the ramifications of an accidental killing for both the perpetrator and the victim’s next of kin.
In this case, the victim is an illegal Mexican migrant (Julio Cedillo) working as a ranch hand in Texas. When trigger-happy border patrol officer Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) hears shots being fired during his daily round, it takes him mere seconds to reach for his rifle. His accidental murder of Melquiades Estrada (who was shooting at a coyote threatening his flock) goes unpunished until rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) discovers the truth. In an effort to honour his dead friend’s wish, Perkins kidnaps Norton and forces him to disinter the body. Together, they embark on a quixotic journey south to Mexico in order to bury Melquiades Estrada in his home town.
That the screenplay’s structure and the story’s thematic premise are identical to the three films Arriaga wrote for Iñaritu is slightly disheartening: his one idea is in danger of wearing a little thin. One can’t help but wonder if refusing to present scenes in chronological order is not merely a gimmick, or worse, a way to turn a wafer-thin story into an apparently complex potboiler. Thankfully, unlike say, Quentin Tarantino (who took non-linear narration from the playful heights of Reservoir Dogs to the eye-rolling spuriousness of Kill Bill), Arriaga’s diminishing returns still leave enough great material for a gifted director to deliver the goods.
Tommy Lee Jones is exactly that director, producing an elegiac road-movie-slash-western which is nostalgic of Peckinpah and Eastwood, yet firmly rooted in contemporary social concerns. His electric performance as the unpredictable Pete Perkins, a man who’ll go to extraordinary (and often violent) lengths to give his friend the burial he wanted, is equally impressive. Jones could have shared his Best Actor prize at Cannes last year with co-star Barry Pepper, who manages to make a compelling character out of killer Mike Norton.
Chris Menges expertly captures the barren brutality of the Texan and Mexican landscapes in stunning widescreen photography. The strength of Three Burials lies in its depiction of grief as a literal burden to bear, a decomposing body to be dragged around the desert until a final resting place can be found. In Jones’ metaphoric universe, guilt is a snake bite, redemption a road trip, and a declaration of love takes the form of a burial. This evocative, if violent, imagery beautifully illustrates the mind states of these hard-drinking, womanizing, and emotionally-illiterate frontier men.
Estrada’s home town, we discover, may or may not exist. As with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, this journey’s destination is less a geographical place than a certain inner peace, where the souls of the dead can rest and those of the living can eventually find solace.