What does a masterpiece look like? Like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, one of the best movies of the decade so far.
Tommy Lee Jones has been treading water for years now. Ever since Men in Black his roles have been a sad spiral of shame, culminating in this year’s horrible Man of the House. It’s been a painful road, but if it’s the one that he had to take to get to Three Burials, it was completely worth it.
Jones makes his theatrical directorial debut here (he directed a TV movie a decade ago), and it’s easily one of the most assured debuts I have seen. He channels the spirit of Peckinpah in Three Burials, strained through late-era Clint Eastwood for a movie that is elegiac, profound, funny and surprisingly moving. It’s the kind of movie that not only do they not make anymore, it’s the kind they hardly ever made in the first place.
Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a ranch hand who wants to fulfill a promise to his best friend, the illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada – to bury the man in his hometown in Mexico. It’s a little complicated, though, since Melquiades has already been buried. So Pete kidnaps Barry Pepper, the Border Patrolman who accidentally killed Melquiades, to dig up the corpse and carry it overland on horseback back to a tiny Mexican hamlet.
The story is simple, but the first half is shrouded in a non-linear narrative (it’s scripted by Guillermo Arriaga, who used similarly non-linear narratives in Amores Perros and 21 Grams). Usually I find that kind of stuff overly tricksy, but here it works, if only because when the second half, the trip to Mexico, begins and the narrative becomes linear we become just as focused on the quest as Perkins. The first half serves almost as a trick to force us into a place where we’re paying attention, and that attention paid is richly rewarded.
I don’t like Barry Pepper. There’s just something about his features that I find irritating – he always looks like a cock to me. He’s perfectly cast here, as his Border guard is a vicious and nasty man who is broken by the trip. As the film goes on he gets his comeuppance and then Pepper does something incredible – he seems reborn. The character completely ruptures and you’re able to honestly feel for him. It’s the kind of performance that requires patience, as it slowly gets under your skin.
Tommy Lee Jones is a revelation, which is a weird thing to say about an actor who has been around as long as he has. It has seemed like maybe Jones had gone the way of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, leaving any kind of art behind for a paycheck, but Three Burials must shut up all his critics. Perkins is a masterfully nuanced character, someone who does something completely insane and yet who must hold our sympathy. Jones nails it, deftly walking the line between repressed cowboy and broken man, always keeping us on our toes from scene to scene.
The film is also crammed with great supporting performances – Dwight Yoakam as the shitty sheriff, The Band’s Levon Helm as a truly pathetic old blind man in the middle of Texas nowhere, Melissa George as the sweet natured border town tramp, January Jones as Barry Pepper’s lonely wife. Each of these minor characters get their own moments and their own arcs; Three Burials is the kind of movie that stops to take in not only the landscape of the land where it’s set but also the landscape of the lives of the people there.
The movie Three Burials most recalls is Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, except that Three Burials is the opposite of that movie. Where Peckinpah served up a healthy dose of anti-social sentiment to go along with the severed titular head, Jones’ film ends up being about redemption and forgiveness and the lengths loyalty will take you. Also, Three Burials features an entire rotting corpse, while Peckinpah never even shows us the head!
As Three Burials came to its unexpected conclusion, and as the movie ended with one of the great lines in film this year (it won’t seem like much out of context, but placed at the end of the film it becomes completely transcendent), I knew I had seen a movie that would not be appreciated. It’s got too much going on and it’s not overly pushy about it. But in ten years or so, people will be looking back at 2005/2006, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is going to be held up as an enduring classic.