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February 1-7, 2006

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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Photograph by Dawn Jones
Roadside Attraction: Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas rancher with a score to settle in 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.'

Corpse Ride

Tommy Lee Jones' 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' is more than just a Tex-Mex version of 'Weekend at Bernie's'

By Richard von Busack

FROM THE insect-blown corpse in the title to the sense of Mexico as the last honest place on the map, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada takes off from Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, just as, in turn, that 1974 Peckinpah classic refers to The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

In the Peckinpah, one of the hired guns searching for Alfredo identifies himself as "Fred C. Dobbs." Dobbs was Bogart's anti-hero in Treasure, the man who didn't stick his neck out for nobody. But in Three Burials, the subject isn't greed but, rather, a bullheaded act of revenge.

Director Tommy Lee Jones plays Pete Perkins, who discovers the body of his dead partner Melquiades (played in flashbacks and cadaver makeup by Julio Cedillo). Perkins solves the killing in a way the local sheriff refuses to do. He kidnaps the border patrolman responsible, then keelhauls the killer all the way back into the desert to Melquiades' village. The decaying body of the dead man comes with them on muleback. In a sense, Perkins ties the dead man around the officer's neck—the same method used once upon a time to punish a chicken-killing dog. As patrolman Mike Norton, Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) isn't going to make this movie popular among the Minutemen. He's a bully who bashes in the face of a fleeing suspect. And from the way Norton bends his wife (January Jones) over the counter of their mobile home for a quick one, we can see that he's oblivious to the finer things in life. Moreover, he gloats over porn magazines sitting in his car while on the job. Is that enough? No, he's also from Ohio, which makes him a thorn in the average Texan's side. An above-average Texan like Perkins is even more offended.

Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros), Three Burials gives Tommy Lee Jones a chance to assay the squinting, flat-voiced, laconic hero whose sense of honor goes beyond any common sense. Jones rescues his own image from years of self-parody. A real-life rancher, he looks just right in the saddle. Still, there comes a stage in an actor's life when manhandling a younger actor has only one purpose: to lend the former the appearance of youth. Jones used to do this kind of thing more softly, as in the scene in The Fugitive when Jones pulls rank, leaning into a junior officer's ear to remind him quietly that "I don't bargain."

In his vistas of the harsh but handsome desert, Chris Menges' photography is on a par with the finest Westerns. He gazes into the horizon with awe, as only an Englishman unleashed in northern Mexico will. In a small part, Levon Helm plays an elderly blind hermit living in the back of nowhere. It's a piercing turn of acting, not really tied to the plot, and there just because it deserves to be in the movie.

If this is a great film, it's only great in the way Cormac McCarthy is a great writer—great within the limits of a fierce morality and relentless self-mythologizing. The last hour goes over the earlier terrain, as if Norton, Perkins and Melquiades were traveling in circles. At 121 minutes, the movie plays like three hours. Flashbacks pad it out, as do the scenes back in civilization, mostly at a small-town cafe run by a cuckold and his adulterous waitress wife, Rachel (Melissa Leo). I only have a professional interest in the Code of the West, so my favorite part in the film was watching Leo's lewd slowpoke grin as she waits on the threshold of a hot-sheet motel room.

And the critics' comparisons to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia aren't justified. Absolutely, the times are right for a rediscovery of Peckinpah; the recently released four-DVD set that includes Peckinpah's smoothly sad Western Ride the High Country looks better than ever. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah's bitterest film, is, like The Three Burials, a road trip through Mexico with a bundle of ever-ripening dead meat. And as in Jones' movie, the border isn't a border but a scar, as Octavio Paz put it. The Yankee dollar and pictures of Richard Nixon loom everywhere to remind the thrashed hero, Bennie (Warren Oates), why he's staying out of America. But nothing in The Three Burials equals the emotional impact of that journey of ruin Benny makes in a bloody but unbowed red convertible Chevy Impala.

In its time, Peckinpah's film was considered the ghastliest movie imaginable. Yet in all seriousness, it's a sensitive and oddly sweet film, often with the boozy gentleness of a Bukowski poem. The gentleness comes only in parts in The Three Burials, as in a sequence where some bear hunters sympathize for the scratched and whimpering gringo. Part of the purpose of the film must be a punishment drill: wish fulfillment for the mojados in the audience, who'd love to see the Border Patrol go through a little of what they endured when crossing into the United States. The hauling of Norton through the brush is first monotonous, then sadistic. Strangely, it's supposed to be as good for Norton's soul as it is for the corpse's honor.

Movie Times The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (R; 121 min.), directed by Tommy Lee Jones, written by Guillermo Arriaga, photographed by Chris Menges and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Pepper, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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