The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The oddly titled movie opens with a good, long look at a stark area of the country. The weather is harsh year round, the land is desolate though beautiful, and the cultural and political stress of being close to a contentious border with Mexico adds a layer of danger and division. Living and thriving in this unforgiving region will either toughen a person as hard as saddle leather or break them completely. Or, it will outright kill you.
The first burial is Melquiades lightly covered in the desert. He’s discovered in the act of being eaten by a coyote and after a cursory examination is buried in a pauper’s grave without even his full name on the cross. An old rancher (Tommy Lee Jones) finds out that his ranch hand is not only dead but buried without ceremony and takes matters into his own hands. He had promised that, if he died, he would make sure Mel would be buried in his home town. A young and already jaded cop (Barry Pepper) moves into the area to work for Border Patrol. His wife (January Jones) is even prettier and spends her day watching bad tv, washing the jeep, and pausing while making dinner so her husband can use her for under a minute. Pretty sure he got more out of it then she did. When he puts his Hustler magazine down long enough to do his job, he’s over the top violent with the illegals they catch.
The story is loosely, very loosely, based on the killing of a Mexican teen by an American Marine. I don’t know if he was buried three times, but this kind of senseless death is part of the southwest American landscape. The movie is a French-American production, directed by Tommy Lee Jones. This doesn’t seem to have affected his acting, because he’s as good as ever here. He also pulls some fine work from all of the already fine actors.
You won’t find a straightforward three act structure, or even a straightforward timeline as we learn about the characters before the movie settles into a somewhat fantastical tale of murder and revenge. The best part is you won’t guess how it ends. I thought I had, and you will think you do, but we would both be wrong. I love it when I don’t guess how a movie ends, especially when it makes my jaw drop.
It didn’t occur to me for a while, but the film doesn’t pass the Bechtel Test. There are women in the film, and it seemed at the time they were integral to the plot, but only one really is, and only just barely. They’re actually in the film to lend character development to the men, and if they were deleted you’d have the same movie.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I watched Three Burials. Not happy, because this is one of the bleakest movies I’ve seen in quite a while. But it does do some really interesting things with story and character, unless you’re looking for even one meaningful woman. I recommend seeing this if you’re looking for something a little different without being so far out of the norm that it’s practically inaccessible.
- The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – IMDB
- The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – Wikipedia
- On Story – PBS.org – Tommy Lee Jones: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) Trailer
I didn’t notice the absence of women as I was entranced by TLJ. I have always loved that craggy-faced man, and I was stuck on Barry Pepper, too! I’m going in again to pay attention to the women. Thanks for pointing that out.☮️