|The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, Julio Cedillo, Melissa Leo, January Jones
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
This may be the only time that I go on record as saying “Recognize” in reference to a married couple that writes for “Spirituality and Practice.” The Rotten Tomatoes capsule of their review of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which says that it is, “…an excruciatingly boring morality tale with poorly developed characters and a big spiritual finale that sputters,” sums up my feelings for the movie rather well. However, I don’t expect us to be friends forever; while they were at it, they gave positive reviews to “Air Force One,” “Rent” and “Syriana.” This time, though, they got it just right.
Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars as a rancher named Pete Perkins, who discovers that his illegal immigrant farmhand and good friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) was found dead of a gunshot wound in the desert. Pete finds out through his waitress girlfriend Rachel (Melissa Leo) that the shooter was a rookie border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). How does a waitress discover such a sensitive piece of information, you ask? Because she’s also dating the sheriff (Dwight Yoakam). Oh, and she’s married to the cook at the diner where she works.
Pete, distraught over his friend’s death and the police department’s apparent lack of interest in bringing the shooter to justice, hatches a plan to kidnap Mike and force him to dig up Melquiades; then he takes both of them over the border so Pete can give his friend the proper burial he promised him in the event of his untimely death. All of this happens really, really slowly, and out of chronological order. Well, until it’s no longer necessary, at which point that gimmick is swiftly discarded.
There are critics who are stark raving mad for this movie, and many of them are people whose opinions I greatly respect, like my boy Roger Ebert. All I can wonder is, did they see the same movie I did? Every critic who walked out of the screening I attended was deathly silent, which means they’re pissed that they lost another two hours of their lives that they will not get back. (Again, critics, plant a tree for every bad movie you see. As one, we can stem the tide of the global warming problem that Michael Crichton swears doesn’t exist.) Forget Peckinpah, or “Lonesome Dove,” or any of those elegant comparisons people are making. The movie’s miserably edited, predictable, and the ending is only slightly more climactic than “The Firm.”
Jones, despite playing a Southern boy who’s hell-bent on bringing someone to justice, does not play Pete the same way he played Sam Gerard in “The Fugitive.” Pete’s softer, quieter, though equally determined and, by the way, completely nuts. Pepper, meanwhile, is forced to undergo a kind of epiphany-by-fire that doesn’t feel at all genuine; if anything, it appears that he’s not coming to terms with his sins so much as suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. But you can always count on the great Melissa Leo to take a supporting part and turn it into something special. She did it in “21 Grams,” and she does it here, making Rachel much more than just a serial philanderer. In fact, she’s the soul of the movie, in an ironic “American Beauty” kind of way (Wes Bentley’s drug dealer).
Okay, Tommy, we get it, karma is a bitch. No need to beat people over the head with it. If they want that, they can see “Regarding Henry” (or not, which is our recommendation). How could a story with so much built-in passion be told so dispassionately? I’m not sure, but “Three Burials” does it, in spades.
The single-disc release of "Melquiades Estrada" includes a making-of documentary, a full-length audio commentary with the cast, a short Cannes Film Fesitval featurette, and "Master Class with Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga."