The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Actor Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut with a story about death, revenge and, ultimately, understanding and compassion. Transplanted border patrol officer, Cincinnatian Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones), arrives on the Texas-Mexican boundary none to happy with his assignment. While on patrol, he is shot at (so he thinks) and, without thinking, returns fire, killing a local goat herder (Julio Cesar Cedillo). He and his superior, Captain Gomez (Mel Rodriguez), try to cover up the killing but the dead man’s friend, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), knows the truth and wants retribution in “The Three Burials of Melguiades Estrada.”

Laura's Review: B+

Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, HBO's "61," "25th Hour") has just moved his wife from Cincinnati to a Texas town where his overly aggressive handling of illegal Mexicans as a border patrolman draws strong criticism from his boss, Captain Gomez (Mel Rodriguez, "Panic Room"). But Gomez contrives a cover up with Sheriff Belmont (country music star Dwight Yoakam, "Sling Blade") when his hair trigger recruit accidentally shoots a local man, and it's up to the dead Mexican's good friend, rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones, "The Missing," "Man of the House"), to unearth the truth and deliver on a promise that brings about "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." What a unique surprise. An actor known for his bellowing gruffness makes his theatrical directorial debut starring as a firm but quiet morals teacher and loyal friend. Guillermo Arriaga's ("Amores perros," "21 Grams") story, while keeping his signature interwoven character strands and a titular triptych that works as chapter headings, has a cleaner, more linear line without sacrificing the character insights gained from flash backs and flash forwards and Chris Menges's ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Good Thief") rich cinematography makes the landscape a character of its own. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," while let down slightly by a cloudy conclusion, is one of 2005's most engrossing films. Mike's not operating much above the basest human instincts. We're introduced to him as he chases down border crossers, then proceeds to punch a woman in the face. He has quick mechanical sex with his bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights") in their mobile home. In fact, he's taking a break from work, having pulled over off a desert road to jack off to a Hustler, when he's surprised by Melquiades Estrada's gunfire. With his pants around his knees, he blindly returns fire. When he discovers he's killed a man who was only protecting his livestock from a coyote, he panics and gives the guy a crude burial. The town's connective character is Rachel (Melissa Leo, "21 Grams"), the wife of local diner owner Bob, mistress to both Pete and the Sheriff, and soon to be comrade in arms to Mike's wife Lou Ann. It is Rachel who hooks up the young bored wife with Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo, "The Life of David Gale," "The Alamo") on a daytime double motel date with herself and Pete and it is Rachel who overhears Belmont and Gomez hushing up the identity of Estrada's murderer and reports the news back to his friend. Rachel and Pete clearly have reason to believe Mike is guilty of first degree murder. But Pete's actions are surprising. He had recently made a promise to Melquiades that if anything ever happened to him, he'd ensure the man was buried back in Mexico near his family in his home town of Jiminez. He uses Mike as his instrument to ensure that promise and one of the great things about Jones's movie is that the man slaughterer and the victim's friend never do learn the truth as each other sees it. After attempting escape to no avail, beaten down by the rugged landscape and a rattlesnake bite, Mike is finally broken and begins to profess his innocence of intent. But Pete doesn't seem to listen, his own intent not revenge but to honor his friend. Mike gets his comeuppance in many ironic and amusing ways, looking about as bad as Estrada's corpse by the end of a torturous journey. There is an underlying theme of 'what goes around, comes around' in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," evident not only in Mike's fate but with the blind man (a terrific Levon Helm of The Band, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") who helps the travellers along their way. Tommy Lee Jones hasn't been this enjoyable on screen since 2000's "Space Cowboys." It's a very relaxed performance for a guy who's also orchestrating the entire film. Unfortunately he and Arriaga can't quite put over the film's fanciful conclusion. We can't be sure whether Pete is deluded or not. The underrated Barry Pepper is Jones's punching bag and the actor makes us feel his pain if he never really gains our sympathy. Does he have an epiphany at the third burial? Again, those final moments don't satisfy the way what before them has. Still, this has an unusual sensibility for a film that feels like a Western. It's a beautifully crafted and original piece of work. Hats off to Mr. Jones.

Robin's Review: B

When I saw the trailer for first time writer-director-producer Ash Mayfair’s “The Third Wife,” the thought popped right into my head – “Raise the Red Lantern (1991)”. That comparative thought is justified – there are lots red lanterns and wives jockeying for favor – but that does not diminish the talent of the newcomer filmmaker. The story about the titular wife who travels far to marry the master of the house is a quiet study of the dynamics of that marriage and all of its players. Young May is number three wife in the household, with #1 Huan (Long Le Vu) and #2 Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya), her rivals for the master’s attention. She vows to give him a son and cement her position in the family, no matter the cost. This vow will haunt her later, in several ways. The quality of production on all levels is remarkable for a newcomer and director Ash Mayfair makes a striking feature debut. And, shows she knows how to make a movie.