Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: Tommy Lee Jones’ Feature Directing Debut

Cannes Festival World Premiere–Structured as a classic revenge Western that will do Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood proud, Tommy Lee Jones’ feature directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is a sharply observed morality tale with strong political overtones about interracial relations.

Set around the violent border of Texas and Mexico, it probes into the cultural clashes contrasts between White Americans and Mexicans.

Three Burials interweaves together the lives of a Texas ranch foreman (Jones), a border patrolman (Barry Pepper), and an illegal immigrant (Julio Cesar Cediloo. All three characters are marginal men who live on the periphery and don’t really belong to any culture.

The screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) was initiated by actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was born and raised in West Texas and for years owned a cattle ranch in the Davis Mountains. Mexican writer Arriaga tells a story that explores the area’s unique culture, which both unites and divides American and Mexicans. In an effort to reflects the right rhythm and poetry of South Texas, Arriaga originally wrote the script in Spanish.

The tale begins with the arrival of patrol man, Mike Norton, and his young, disillusioned wife, Lou Ann (January Jones) in a small border town, populated by ranchers, lawmen, Mexican laborers, whose everyday lives are shaped and defined by the unique culture of the Texas/Mexico border. The town’s social center is the diner, owned by Rachel (Melissa Leo) and her husband.

Lead character Perkins would like to see peaceful co-existence and mutual respect between the two cultures. A foreman of a big ranch in West Texas, he speaks Spanish fluently, and is well versed in Mexican mores.

When Melquiades is killed, and Perkins finds out that no further action will be taken and that nobody will be brought to justice, he’s outraged at the disrespect to his friend. Contemptuous toward the ineffective sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), Perkins decides to take the law into his hands and remedy the situation by kidnapping the killer, Mike Norton, at gunpoint.

In flashbacks, we learn that the Mexican was a hard-working laborer, whose friendship with Perkins was based on mutual respect. In a casual conversation, Melquiades asks Perkins to grant him a decent burial in his hometown’should he get killed. Perkins gives him his word, and this promise becomes as sacred as any other thing in Perkins’ life.

A series of physical, mental, and emotional punishments follow. First, Mike is forced to dig the vaquero up for the second time. The corpse is then put on the back of a mule and is hauled down to Mexico to his hometown for a proper burial. The point is to make Mike Norton repent for his sin and ask for forgiveness and redemption for his silly mistake.

The film is loosely based on the true story of a young Mexican who was killed by U.S. Patrol stupidly, partially by mistake. This isolated incident bears important consequences for all of the town’s residents. The events that follow are objectionable to the people who live along the border. One of the film’s many ironies is that Melquiades is killed by Mike Norton, who’s unaware that the Mexican is having an affair with his wife.

Thought it’s contemporary, the story has the feel of a timeless tale. The nonlinear story promotes the notion that there are no clear distinctions between the past and the present, implying that the story could have taken place in both time frames. The tripartite story changes perspective and tone as its moves back and forth through time.

Filmed on location in West Texas, around the town of Van Horn, the surrounding David Mountains, and the Big Bend area further south on the Mexican border, the film has the epic scale of a John Ford Western. The geography represents some of the most remote and majestic areas in the U.S., with canyons and mountains spread over the vast desert basin of the ancient Permian Sea. The land is as wild and varied as the weather and the characters.

This unpredictable territory is perfectly suited to a narrative that’s constantly shifting, and to a cast of characters, all outsiders, that are constantly being redirected and reoriented. The vast, isolated, treacherous landscape, which is as much a character in the story as the human figures, is splendidly shot by the renowned cinematographer Chris Menges.

As director, Jones has succeeded in capturing the border culture in all its manifold forms: unrelenting desert sands, thunderstorm sunsets, towering cliff faces, and stretches of moonscape limestone.

Most American border films have reflected the POV of white Americans. However, in this film, though the main character is white, his unique status lends the tale a more balanced perspective, one that looks at the problem of illegal immigration and border crossing in a more neutral way.

The movie explores the socio-cultural divide in terms of values, traditions, and customs between the land that’s south of the Rio Grande River and the land that’s north of it. In some respects, the mores are the same, while in others, they are different.

Three Burials reverses the whole equation of racial and cultural lines. Jones presents different perspectives in sequential time, based on various witnesses to the events. As a result, the sequence of events is examined from different POVs, some in the past and some in the present. The various witnesses to the central incident enrich the film and also enhance the central motif of characters always looking at and observing each other. But instead of the customary mode of North American citizens looking down at Mexicans, we also have the reversals, of Mexican looking back.

Like most Westerns, Three Burials is an allegory. Problem is, the movie bears its leftist message on its sleeves, carrying its liberal ideology to an extreme by presenting all the Mexican characters in a positive way, while condemning the white killer, who embodies the worst qualities of his white race.

Despite some shortcomings, Three Burials is an honorable addition to a growing subgenre of border movies that includes Tony Richardson’s underestimated The Border and Gregory Nava’s El Norte, to mention two films.