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Now on DVD: A Brand-New Classic Western
October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
“A tardy and subordinate genre,” sniffed Jorge Luis Borges about the American Western novel in a 1960s lecture. What Borges meant was that it took its lead from the Hollywood Western film, which had long since settled into the ponderous and predictable. Two films set in the contemporary or recent West, Brokeback Mountain and, now, Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada —which has just become available on DVD—prove there is a universe of material beyond Hollywood. The articles just a few years ago about the death of the Western are now being buried in a blizzard of stories on its new possibilities.
It’s no secret that serious films on contemporary subjects don’t do very well at the box office in this country. Right now the trickiest possible subject for a filmmaker to deal with is immigration. Who knows how the American public is going to feel about our policies a year from now? Who knows how an accidental shooting of a Mexican illegal will affect opinion polls on both sides of the border? Clearly such questions are not on the minds of Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg.
It’s not a surprise that a film like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada didn’t become a hit; along with Brokeback Mountain and Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking , it’s one of a curious new subgenre that might best be described as “art house Western,” a film that by definition is only intended for a small audience. ( Brokeback Mountain , for obvious reasons, broke out of the circuit and into the shopping-mall multiplexes.)
The Three Burials , Tommy Lee Jones’s second directorial effort (his 1995 television movie, an adaptation of Elmer Kelton’s The Good Old Boys , was a respectful tribute to the values of old Westerns), is, unexpectedly, a great film. The script by Guillermo Arriaga, like those he wrote for Amores Perros and 21 Grams , is fragmented and nonsequential, while Jones’s direction is taut and straightforward. The tension between the two disparate styles produces a story that builds surprising momentum without a standard plot. Three Burials also benefits from a fine performance by Jones, who doesn’t seem in the least distracted by his directorial duties. He plays Pete Perkins, a foreman on a ranch near the Texas-Mexico border who, perhaps to his own surprise, strikes up a friendship with an illegal immigrant worker, Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo). The relationship does not seem forced. A lonely man yearning for roots, Pete is touched by Melquiades’s own yearning for his small-town home in Mexico. Almost offhandedly, Melquiades tells Pete that if he were to die in the United States, he would want his body taken back.
When Melquiades is accidentally shot by a border guard named Mike (Barry Pepper), Pete attempts to get the local sheriff, Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), involved. But none of these characters acts quite the way you expect him to. Yoakam’s sheriff refuses to pursue the case, not through overt racism or even a strong desire to protect his fellow officer but mostly, it seems, from a weariness born of seeing too many hopeless cases. Pepper’s Mike is a casual bigot and something of a slob. At first the script seems slanted to make us root for Pete to exact some kind of vengeance, and if this were a conventional Western, or even a conventional contemporary cop film, that’s the direction the movie would take. Instead, Pete abducts Mike and brings him along on an odyssey to take Melquiades home. The characters work their way toward that rarest of movie rarities, a genuine valediction.
Because Three Burials packs such unanticipated emotional power, critics scrambled to name its influences. Those most often cited were John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sam Peckinpah’s films (particularly his 1974 contemporary Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia ). Any film that begins, as this one does, with a coyote in the desert eating human flesh is probably going to draw comparisons to Peckinpah.
Yet for a film with such a grisly opening, Three Burials isn’t especially violent. It’s more about the consequences of violence and about going through hell (or at least purgatory) before finding one’s way home. Jones’s real influences would appear to be literary, the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying or the Flannery O’Connor of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” placed in the backdrop of a Larry McMurtry story—Jones, after all, played a man who hauled a corpse a long way to a grave in McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove .