The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Good ol' fashioned Western corpse transit hokum.
The good thing, if you can say there is such a thing as a good thing to come out of it, of the living death of the Western in recent years is that the few that leak out years tend to be pretty decent. With the obvious exception of The Missing. While this Tommy Lee Jones directed, Tommy Lee Jones starring effort is of a more ponderous nature and certainly nothing like as blood-drenched as the year's other outing, The Proposition, it's certainly as good, as far as that vague and nebulous term goes.
Pete (Jones) is a cowboy, and so is the titular Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), an illegal immigrant who sneaked over the Mexican border patrolled in part by Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). This deft, one sentence introduction of the major players over we can afford some time to point out Mike's wife Lou Ann (January Jones. No, honestly), not adjusting particularly happily to the small town trailer experience the couple have only just started to, er, experience. While we're at it, let's point you in the general direction of cafe waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who's seemingly happy enough to sleep with whomever asks it of her. I mention these folks only because they get a goodly amount of screentime but play little to no part in the actual plot.
The plot of which we speak being hinted at in the title, although it also hints at some sort of Mexican zombie extravaganza, which would actually have some merit in it now I come to think about it. In a nutshell, the objectionable Mike shoots and kills Melquiades, who was happily tending to his goats and taking potshots at a coyote. Accidentally, you see. Mike thought he was shot at, rather than the goat-bothering canine. The Border Patrol and the local Sheriff's department do something of a cover story after Melquiades' body is found, burying him in an only very barely marked grave.
If Pete was annoyed by the death of one of his best friends, he's incensed by the casual disposition of his final resting place. Doing the only thing that seems reasonable under the circumstances, he launches his own investigation into Melquiades' untimely devise, quickly finding out what Mike's big secret is and taking appropriate measures.
These measures, naturally, are kidnapping Mike, exhuming Melquiades' body and setting off on horseback so laden to fulfil a promise; to return his body to his small Mexican village and his family. Straightforward, with the small exception of being chased by the cops and no-one seeming to know exactly where this village is.
What follows could be roughly categorised as some sort of coming-of-age-cum-buddy-comedy film, although admittedly that's not a convenient box to stuff things into. The grizzled veteran's certainly teaching the irresponsible, impudent young pup a thing or two about responsibility, and Mike certainly deserves his rough justice. At least for a while, anyway. There's a definite point in The Three Burials... where the scales of justice tip over and the experience that Pete makes Mike endure, which if not hell is at least a kind of purgatory with spiky bits, stops fitting the crime and becomes a sort of applied nastiness. Mike's not a nice person, but this turns into a distinctly doubleplus unnice punishment for a mistake it's made plain he regrets.
This slight unease glosses over well, and I'm really doing my trademark 'pick niggly flaws' schtick here anyway. Jones gives a commendably restrained performance in a role which later on could have easily gone over to cartoon villainy, instead imbuing Pete with a desperate vulnerability that passes through sympathy across into a worrying territory, at much the same time as the festering corpse of Estrada crosses over the border. Pepper, who despite having been knocking about for a good few years and having been in films I've definitely seen, can't remember much of (although I seem to have liked him in 25th Hour) carries most of the emotional heart of the film and does well, playing Mike with just the right level of early doors wrongheadedness to make the eventual change of sympathies surprising and welcome.
There's so many small moments of beautiful characterisation that we'll forgive the plot being skeletal at best, and it's a lovely thing to watch this morbid little trip unfurl at its own stately pace. In a year again full of the disappointing or terrible, this is so far above average as to be playing a different game entirely. While we've seemingly missed the fleetingly slender U. K. cinema release window of opportunity, track this one down on DVD as soon as it becomes available. I personally guarantee1 you'll love it.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
1Not a guarantee.
Barry Pepper (Mike Norton)
Julio Cesar Cedillo (Melquiades Estrada)
Dwight Yoakam (Belmont)
January Jones (Lou Ann Norton)
Melissa Leo (Rachel)