Friday, March 03, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Director: Tommy Lee Jones)

Actor Tommy Lee Jones has been in movies for nearly 40 years. Hard to believe. It's also hard to believe that the Harvard grad, who once roomed with Al Gore, has taken this long to get behind the director's chair. This is his first feature, although he did a TV movie in 1995. Written by 21 Grams and Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.

Here's a movie that blazed through the festival circuit, got a Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes, and appeared to be destined for at least a couple of 2005 Oscar noms, but got lost in the shuffle. I must admit, this movie was not what I was expecting. Not knowing much about it, I thought it might be a Lone Star-style whodunnit, a movie where multiple storylines present and past would converge to the ultimate truth.

The movie begins with a sort of present/past flashback style, the kind of thing in which writer Arriaga specializes. Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) has had a friendship with border jumper Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), who has just been discovered shot dead in the Texas desert. Perkins starts making inquiries, suspecting the Border Patrol. One of the men of this group is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has been a sort of pest for the Patrol for his strongarm tactics. He's married to hot young thing Lou Ann (January Jones), who was used to somewhat big-city life in Cincinnati and has become a bored trailer wife, striking up a friendship with the town cafe whore Rachel (Melissa Leo, who appeared in 21 Grams), who escorts many men around town, including the sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). After overhearing a conversation between Belmont and border patrol agreeing to cover up the identity of the killer, Rachel tells Perkins, and Perkins goes to give Melquiades justice and a proper burial, one the man asked for before he died.

The who of the whodunnit isn't the main focus of the movie, and you might even know who that is already, but I won't reveal it here. The killer is revealed midway and is not the "ultimate truth" that the movie is searching for. Instead, it's more about the journey from Texas to Mexico and facing the dangers of the still wild west. Make no mistake, this movie isn't for children or the squeamish. There's horrific looks at death and the challenges for survival.

It's an entertaining movie, but it's muddled in some places, especially the beginning during the present/flashback mode. In 21 Grams, you had some helpful indicators that told you, "OK, this is at a different point in the timeline," whereas here, it takes awhile to figure it out. But that's actually a fairly minor qualm, considering those kinds of things reward multiple viewings. But, it's not the movie that will necessarily be a richer experience the second time around. The second half is more conventionally told. So I question the idea of telling the story that way in the first half and not being consistent with the second. There are a number of ways it could have been done, but perhaps Tommy Lee Jones wanted to distance himself from the Alejandro Gonz�lez I��rritu (director of 21 Grams and Amores Perros) comparisons and make the movie with his own signature.

Not the richest of experiences I would have liked, but solid nonetheless.


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