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THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, 2005
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THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA,  MOVIE POSTERTHE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, 2005
Movie Reviews

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Staring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight, Yoakam, Julio Cedillo, January Jones,Melissa Leo,Mel Rodriguez
Review by Surinder Singh


SYNOPSIS:

After his friend and fellow ranch helper Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is shot by bigoted border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) sets about fulfilling his promise to Estrada to bury him on a specific location on Mexican soil. With the rest of border patrol on his tail, Pete drags Norton kicking and screaming on an odyssey of pain and redemption across the American/Mexican border.

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REVIEW:

Tommy Lee Jones has never been a conventional Hollywood leading man. He plays his good and bad guys with equally twisted psychological depth that make his performances unforgettable. In The Fugitive (1993) as Samuel Gerard, Tommy Lee Jones created such an exhilarating character that it spawned a second film: US Marshals (1998) to give audiences another taste of this magnificent antagonist who clearly stole the movie away from Harrison Ford’s protagonist! Now in the latter part of his career Tommy Lee Jones has taken to working behind the camera as well as in front and with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has produced an extremely accomplished movie.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a contemporary western that steers away from trying to replicate previous classics in the genre. It deals with contemporary issues relevant to the US today: the illegal immigration of Mexicans into the US and the resulting racism that ensues. A newly recruited officer to border control; Mike Norton arrives on the scene with his reluctant wife Lou Ann (January Jones) on tow. Norton’s internal anger and hate are wonderfully portrayed by the hard-faced, not to mention heavily underrated Barry Pepper. He exudes a sense of violence that’s ready to erupt underneath his frustrated sexuality and the boredom whilst sat waiting on the border. We get a strong feeling that this guy is going to hurt someone soon.

When we meet Tommy Lee Jones’ Pete we see an entirely different kind of man. While the antisocial Norton is intent on keeping people out, Pete is a friendly-faced employer who speaks fluent Spanish; essentially a solution to migration as opposed to a deterrent. Pete takes in the able bodied Estrada as an extra hand on his ranch and very soon both men are close friends. While the entire small-town inhabitants suffer underneath a blanket of repression, Pete and Melquiades enjoy an uninhibited romantic afternoon affair with a pair of bored housewives: Lou Ann and the slightly older Rachel (Melissa Leo). It may be adultery but the happy-go-lucky cowboys bring a much needed sense of joy to the lives of these cafÈ-bound and effectively redundant women…you might call it a service!

With The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Tommy Lee Jones shows us very clearly how well he can direct performances as well as give them. Every actor is given space to unveil a depth and truth that avoids any lack of dimension. Tommy Lee Jones’ handling of Estrada is an interesting piece of work! As the film title would suggest, the character Estrada spends most of his screen time as a corpse. Even so, Lee Jones adequately sets up the relationship between Pete and Melquiades very effectively and quickly so that the connection they have comes off instantly. The risky path Lee Jones then treads is to drag a dummy around with him for the rest of the movie!

Acting with an inanimate object is difficult to say the least. Tom Hanks dared to try it in Cast Away (2000) but Tommy Lee Jones goes much further in the way he forges a new and slightly twisted relationship with Estrada’s rotting corpse. The friendly ranch hand Pete shows us a side to him that is worryingly demented through his relationship with Estrada’s corpse. After discovering the identity of Estrada’s murderer, Pete violently drags Norton out of his house and sadistically makes him dig up Estrada’s body. If that wasn’t enough we see Pete desperately burn the ants off the corpse’s head and then fill it with ant-freeze. Pete even talks to it that is perhaps more alarming than when he tries to comb Estrada’s dead hair that obviously falls out. Such things could end up farcical in another actor’s hands but Lee Jones manages to pull it off.

By the film’s end, after the brutal and stomach churning journey to the correct burial site, we see the method behind Pete’s apparent madness. He places the photo of Estrada and his family before a kneeling Norton and says: “Now beg for Melquiades’ forgiveness!” Pepper plays it to perfection; all the bigotry has been weaned out of him as he begs in desperation. In many ways Tommy Lee Jones has crafted the perfect cautionary tale for bigots and racists within the frame of the Western. In this movie we see the snake-bitten Norton at the mercy of the Mexican woman he punched in the face earlier on in the movie – what goes around indeed comes around!

The film also addresses the idea of rehabilitation. One may not agree that Pete’s method is acceptable but it does certainly make Norton pay for the murder he committed in a way that the Death Penalty or a simple reduced sentence might. By the end we can see that Norton has indeed been changed for the better by the experience. With The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Tommy Lee Jones has brilliantly re-crafted the Western for a contemporary audience. At the centre of the movie is a powerful message that everyone in the world can relate to. Like his peer Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones is a senior Hollywood leading man showing the way to the new movie generation.

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