The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

When I review a film, even when I simply think about a film, in the end I come back to one basic question: did the film work for me, or didn’t it. A History of Violence worked for me on all levels, and got to look even better the more I thought of it. Serenity worked for me after the “how could he do that!” shock, because what he did was shocking and hurtful but in the end absolutely fucking brilliant. Broken Flowers and Le Temps Qui Reste did not “work” for me entirely, and neither did Munich. Most of Spielberg’s body of work doesn’t work for me, as a matter of fact, but more on that and Munich later.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, directed by Agent K himself, Tommy Lee Jones, worked for me, and to judge by the applause at the end of it, it worked for many people. It’s not a film that will probably become anyone’s favorite movie of all time, it’s not really extraordinary in any way, but everything in it just feels right.

The first half is told non-linearly, jumping back and forth in time, but it is always clear where we are in the story, and the pace is so leisurely that it never feels in the least confused. The basic gist: Melquiades Estrada, an illegal mexican vaquero, is friends with Pete (played by Tommy Lee Jones, who got the acting prize for this in Cannes and who is fascinatingly vulnerable). Melquiades accidentally gets shot by an aggressive new border patrol guy, who hides it. The local police finds out, but chooses to cover it up; Pete finds out and decides to take matters into his own hands, in the linear second half abducting Mike, the border patrol guy (played by Barry Pepper) to give Melquiades a final burial in his homeland.

Tommy Lee Jones apparently object to this be calling a Western. On the one hand I understand, because in a way the word Western implies themes of vengeance, violence, men’s men, black and white thinking, the thrill of shoot-outs and all that. This film has much more texture than the average Western, I’ll admit, but I don’t think of the word as being pejorative, and for me it has to do more with grand vistas, characters who say little but feel much, and of course with the wildness and unpredictableness of border towns, and if you see these as the fundamental elements of Westerns, then the term fits the film perfectly.

It is hard to say what makes the difference between a film that works and one that doesn’t. Here, so many things could have gone wrong. The parts with the corpse could have been too absurd, too gross, too ridiculous (there was much laughter in those sequences, but I think it stemmed mostly from discomfort), but they manage to stay just within the bounds. Barry Pepper’s character was almost too despicable, but he was luckily given some redeeming moments too. The ending could have been a let-down, but was pitch-perfect. The entire film could have been cheap sadism, and it is very sadistic at some points, but the film rarely (in fact, only really at one particular moment) lets you enjoy seeing vengeance exacted, lets you cheer, and the true sadness of Tommy Lee Jones’ character keeps things grounded. The enotional core of the film, the friendship between these two men, is set up in just a few short sequences, but it is crucial to elevating this film above your average revenge fantasy.

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