For decades, viewers have marveled at the deeply engraved face of actor Tommy Lee Jones. Now, seeing his directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it all makes sense. You’d have extravagant furrows in your brow too if your imagination lived in territory like this.
The Three Burials is about border crossings, but instead of playing the guy who arrests illegal aliens — as he did in Men in Black — Jones is playing Pete Perkins, a guy who watches with grim dismay as border patrolmen and Mexicans crossing over illegally clash in South Texas. It’s not the border that troubles him. He’s bothered by the way that these American enforcers those who strive so intently to trespass on U.S. soil.
The problem reaches a breaking point when Perkins’ best friend Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is shot and killed in a tragic mishap. An aging, irascible fellow, Perkins determines to find the shooter and deliver some good old-fashioned justice. Why not call the cops? Perkins suspects that the cops don’t want to trouble themselves over the corpse of “a wetback,” but he’s even more driven to even the score when he learns that the shooter was a border patrolman.
Mike Horton (Barry Pepper) is a jittery and violent new member of the Texas Border Patrol, fast with his fists and quick on the trigger. He just arrived in the area with his young wife Lou Ann (January Jones), whom he uses for quick and grossly self-centered sexual satisfaction. The thrill is gone, clearly, for both of them, and it’s hard to believe it was ever there at all. She quietly, wearily surrenders to his fifteen-second fits without taking her eyes off of the soap operas, where beleaguered wives vent the anger that she’s too numb to express.
Even though he’s now a killer, it seems probable that Horton will go on with his routine of beating Mexicans, passing his patrol time with pornography, and then screwing his wife when he gets home. Even though his supervising patrolman frowns on Horton’s recklessness, he’s not likely to deliver anything more than a slap on the wrist, while the local police would rather just bury Melquiades’ corpse and forget the whole thing.
So Perkins decides that it’s time to make Horton walk a mile — or, actually, lots of miles — in Melquiades’ shoes. He appoints himself as the dark angel of justice, nabbing Horton and dragging him down to Mexico with plans to teach him a lesson. What follows is as hot and dusty as it is rough and bloody. The landscape on the other side of the border does not offer the comforts of diner food and air-conditioned trailers, much less shopping malls. It is a region outside of time — a mythic wasteland, full of dangers and mysteries, dealing out hardship equally to crooks and officers of the law, with only an occasional oasis of comfort and culture.
Along the way, we learn more about Melquiades’ past, and discover that the patrolman’s assumptions about the people south of the border are severely flawed.
We also learn that Perkins, charged with zeal to make something meaningful out of his life, may not understand as much as he thinks he does. He wants to deliver judgment, but does he even understand the crime? How innocent a man was Melquiades anyway? Is justice something that human beings can achieve on this earth, considering that its champions are deeply flawed themselves?
Meanwhile, Lou Ann gets used to a lonely life back at the border, wandering between their trailer home and the diner, where she strikes up a tenuous friendship with a middle-aged, worldly-wise waitress — Rachel (Melissa Leo). Rachel mentors Lou Ann in how to cope with the disappointments of marriage, luring her into extramarital adventures with available men. (She herself is sleeping with Perkins and with the cantankerous sheriff, played by Dwight Yoakam). Together, they begin making moral compromises of their own as a way of surviving the arrogance, immaturity, and dishonesty of their men.
Thus, The Three Burials becomes more than just a story of sin and consequences. It asks us to consider how cultures clash without communicating; how men and women use, abuse, betray, and idealize each other; how we respond to the call of conscience; and how those who appoint themselves as judges will learn they are ill-equipped to achieve it. It asks us, what does it mean to be an honorable man? An honorable woman? An honorable citizen? An honorable officer of the law?
Each one of these characters is swerving astray from the straight and narrow, but each one of them has a conscience — however they have tried to bury it. Perkins’ conscience is the first to wake up, as the most meaningful thing in his life — his fatherly connection to Melquiades — is destroyed. His quest to fulfill Melquiades’ request, to return his body to the Mexican paradise he called “Jiminez”, becomes more than just the fulfillment of a promise; it becomes an expression of his own longing for peace. He too has led a life of dishonor and indulgence. Perhaps his persecution of Horton is a reflection of his own self-condemnation. Perhaps his journey becomes even more determined when he realizes that a paradise on earth and a future with Rachel is unreachable.
Jones proves to be a remarkable director, drawing memorable performances from Pepper, Jones, and co-stars Melissa Leo and Dwight Yoakam. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros) develops all of his characters into convincing and unpredictable human beings, without plunging into the preposterously extreme despair of his previous film, 21 Grams. Together, they punctuate their Peckinpah-style violence with a wicked sense of humor, some rewarding insights into human nature, and imagery that radiates desert heat.
Viewers should be warned about Jones’ unflinching portrayal of violence and sexual misbehavior. Personally, I found the intensity to be a bit wearying, which made it difficult for me to feel much emotion during the dramatic finale. Further, animal lovers should be warned about one horrifying scene of an animal’s death.
And yet, while the film comes with a caution, it also deserves praise as a memorable tribute to the fierce moral vision of Jones’ storytelling hero — Flannery O’Connor.
Jones’ movie was fashioned in a way that clearly reflects the influence of O’Connor on his imagination. He wrote his dissertation on that great Southern writer, and there are echoes of her methods in his own. O’Connor understood that human beings can’t be easily divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Her stories are full of sinful people, some of whom comprehend God’s mysterious ways more than others. They are often characterized by shocking acts of wickedness and dismaying conclusions. But they also remind us that God is in the business of offering grace even as he lets evildoers stumble into their own consequences.
The level of violence in The Three Burials has more to do with Peckinpah than O’Connor — I think even she would have turned away from Jones’ harsh imagery at times, purposeful as that imagery is. Even the toughest moviegoers are likely to become uncomfortable. But the film will stick with you. It’s a scorching journey alongside stubborn fools as they stumble awkwardly toward grace, or run headlong in the other direction until their sins catch up with them.
Viewers will argue about whether this story reaches a satisfactory conclusion. I found one character’s climactic transformation to be confounding and unlikely, driven more by desperation than a real change of heart. But the closing moment of the film moved me — an unexpected glimmer of hope that perhaps our endeavors to do the right thing can make a difference. Perhaps some of the seeds of grace we scatter on hard ground will occasionally take root.
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A NOTE ABOUT THE STATE OF THE WESTERN AFTER BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Famed Christian writer, recording artist, and actor Pat Boone thinks Brokeback Mountain has killed the genre of the Western. “One of our country’s finest exports for 75 years, the dramatic story where lonely heroes fight desperate but victorious battles, where the good guys always win and the desperadoes get what they deserve, has been dealt a possibly fatal wound.” Boone says he saw his friend Denzel Washington “cringe” when he announced that Brokeback won the Golden Globe for Best Film.
Well, first of all, Boone can stop worrying. Brokeback hasn’t broken anything. There are more Westerns on the way… from films about Jessie James to Billy the Kid to an internationally acclaimed film full of big hats, dusty horses, loaded guns, and love of the heterosexual kind — The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Even Wim Wenders’ new film Don’t Come Knocking could be interpreted as a Western, about a cowboy who finally quits roaming the range and comes home.
Second, Boone might do well to wonder why he, as an outspoken Christian, is so attached to the old model of the Western, which champions men who resolve complicated matters with a pistol and an arrogant tip of the hat. Christianity claims that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and traditional Westerns encourage us to resort to violent resolutions. They also encourage us to see the world as a “good people versus bad people” situation, whereas the real world is made up of bad people who should seek to resolve things with peace and with grace wherever possible. There are no clean-cut good guys in the world, and any mythology that tells us so could lead us to disastrous misconceptions, whether on a personal or a national level. (And some would say, it has.)
Further, who’s to say that a Western must have a happy ending, “where the good guys always win and the desperadoes get what they deserve”? In the real world, “the good guys” don’t always win. In fact, if you look at the newspaper, or the scriptures, for that matter, it’s clear that “the bad guys” win a lot of battles. The Christian perspective would insist that the war is ultimately won not on the strength of the good guys, but on the strength of God, whose actions humble and mystify both the evildoers and those striving for righteousness. What’s more — a truly Christian vision subverts the whole idea of “good guys” and “bad guys,” reminding us that it is only God’s grace that rescues any of us from the consequences of our toxic behavior.
There are other reasons that Boone should quit worrying about the state of the Western. Dramas about gay people haven’t killed the drama; romantic comedies about gay people haven’t ruined the romantic comedy. If Boone wants to consider a Western that has truly altered the way we look at the genre, he should consider Unforgiven, which questioned whether one man and a rifle can really achieve peace and justice in a complicated world.