The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (15)

Nov 15, 2006
Cranbrook Film Society

As Martin Scorsese has pointed out, there are two quintessentially American film genres; the Gangster film, and the Western. And if the Gangster genre is about the dark side of the American dream, the Western has always been about the law and the justice needed to make the Shining City on the Hill.

“The Three Burials of Mequiades Estrada” is a terrific, eccentric, and beautiful addition to the canon of the latter American art form. Filming for the most part on his own ranch in Texas, Tommy Lee Jones creates from the script of Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) a traditional Western (but with fractured chronology), full of concerns about what is it is to be a moral person, but in an absolutely contemporary, credible setting. The central theme – a man’s entitlement to the dignity of a respectful burial, whoever he is – is both timeless and contemporary. But we also recognise the characters as modern people just like us, seeking to attune themselves to what life has brought them and to the ‘comforts’ consumer society offers.

The music, sometimes peripheral to the film’s narrative, and the television programmes seem to reinforce the characters’ moods and often seem to supply the dialogue for characters so alienated from themselves that they make love watching television as absentmindedly as they would eat potato chips. The characters for the most part want to draw themselves so small that the world of chat shows, soap operas and pornography will express them. They sit in the diner all day, fantasise about the mall, and draw the blinds against a natural world that, especially in Chris Menges’ crystalline cinematography, represents an unyielding, dazzling, and beautiful reproach. The land was once all Mexico and the “migra”, the more or less brutal border patrols, are there to stop them “re-occupying” Texas, but in the end it seems less important whose land it is than that you can recognise you’re part of it.

In the Bible the desert is the place of temptations and the place where you go to reflect and find yourself. We can’t really put a border in the desert because it does not belong to us: we belong to it. Denying that only makes temptations, like Hustler magazine and the impotence (literal and metaphorical) of illicit affairs, seem like “natural” refuges.

The only unambivalently healthy relationship between any of the characters seems to be between Melquiades, the Mexican cowboy, working illegally, and Pete, the grizzled foreman, played by the director.. Between them there is a tenderness and devotion that, though platonic, doesn’t seem a million miles from Brokeback Mountain. But Melquiades is in a way doing his killer a final favour from beyond the grave by not letting him bury him until he can feel again what it is he’s burying. He must feel the commonality of his humanity. And where Americans expect there to be buying and selling, the Mexicans, and the strange blind man in the desert, freely give.

The film is also, almost in passing, a critique of the standing disgrace that is the US prison system. No one could claim that the crime that is at the heart of the film’s plot goes unpunished (as Eastwood’s late great western Unforgiven brilliantly showed there can be no reconciliation without punishment) but the film also shows there can also be rehabilitation even repentance. This is an idea that surprisingly does not figure a lot in a country as Christian and as intent on punishment as the US.

Tommy Lee Jones | USA/France | 2005 | 121 minutes | 15