What happens when a film's most likeable character is an illegal alien from Mexico who has an affair with a beautiful and very isolated woman recently relocated from Cincinnati, Ohio to this small dot on the map on the Tex-Mex border?
That's the dilemma facing first-time feature film director Tommy Lee Jones in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," a film that brings to mind the best of Peckinpah and, at times, the worst of Peckinpah in presenting the tale of Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), a hard-working, quietly spoken cattle rancher who forges a friendship with Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) when the Spanish-speaking man crosses the border seeking work as a cowboy.
How Jones handles this most difficult task is in the style of the more intelligent Westerns, with scenery and silence, intentionally placed words and characters that can be seen as neither good nor bad, but most definitely human. Based upon a script by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perro and 21 Grams), "Three Burials" captured prizes for the acting Jones and Arriaga's script as 2005's Cannes Film Festival.
"Three Burials" is not really a powerful film, despite being filled with many dramatic moments. Instead, it is a sure film that rests its success on the absolute conviction of characters who often make misguided decisions for honorable reasons. In the film, Melquiades is accidentally killed by Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), an abusive, shallow and insecure border patrol officer recently relocated from Cincinnati with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones), by far the most beautiful thing in a town of weathered sadness.
Norton, early on, is portrayed as an utterly brutal officer who savagely beats those illegals who try to resist him and whose affection-starved wife is treated more as property than prize. Lou Ann is befriended by Rachel (Melissa Leo), a brash, straight-talking waitress who is married yet carrying on affairs both with Perkins and the town sheriff (Dwight Yoakam).
The challenge of "Three Burials" is in watching multiple characters making decisions based upon inaccurate information. The audience sees the truth, and thus it becomes nearly impossible to identify or sympathize with any one character completely.
As Norton, Pepper gives the strongest performance of his career by creating a character that is impossible to accept but impossible to hate. Norton is abusive and ignorant, but in equal measure he is also desperate and pathetic. Does he actually deserve the fate he receives when Perkins learns that it is he who killed Melquiades? Arriaga and Jones don't make that decision for the audience, but instead choose to present the characters as they really are and allow the audience to decide.
"Three Burials" also has just a hint of "Death Wish" in it, however, it's in a more restrained, disciplined manner. In "Death Wish," Charles Bronson sought street justice for wrongs done to those he loved and he exacted that justice with intensity and focus. Tommy Lee Jones does much the same here, and offers his best performance in years as a man who doesn't so much explode when the death of his dear friend is swept under the rug by local law enforcement as he simply heads out to exact his own brand of poetic justice.
Jones' performance simmers with both tenderness and toughness. When he forces Norton to join him on his journey to honor a commitment he made to Melquiades to bury him, should he die first, in his hometown in Mexico, Jones practices a sort of cathartic "tough love" with Norton in trying to get Norton to see the error of his ways. However, Jones also displays quiet moments of tenderness along the way involving the rapidly decomposing body of his friend and border-crossing Mexicans they encounter along the way.
It is easy to take this journey with Perkins and Norton, because both men are painted so vividly by Arriaga's script and Jones's direction. Both men are flawed, though Norton's are certainly portrayed in a more negative light. Neither man is even remotely aware how much they are truly interconnected, and the true master stroke of Arriaga's script is that there is no clear resolution in the film.
Does the end of the journey find Pete at peace with himself and the loss of his friend?
No, not really.
Does Norton change his ways and undergo a spiritual transformation by the end of the journey?
On a certain level, yes. On a deeper level, no.
Does Lou Ann ever find peace?
Is Melquiades at rest in the home he seemed to remember so vividly?
It's open for debate.
"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a contemplation film that begs to be chewed up, spit out, processed, talked about and felt deeply. It is not a film you simply watch...to do so is to miss the point. With strong performances by its leads, Jones, Cedillo and Pepper, and subtle, effective performances from Leo, January Jones and Dwight Yoakam in supporting roles, "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a film shares most subtly that the war on terror occurs mostly within and the healing journey is a journey that never really ends.