Friday, December 11, 2015
Tommy Lee Jones | The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
point of no return
by Douglas Messerli
Guillermo Arriaga (screenplay), Tommy Lee Jones (director) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada / 2005
Despite its receiving the prestigious Cannes awards for best actor (Tommy Lee Jones) and best screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga), Jones’ debut directorial feature, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is one of those films that seems destined to become forgotten over time. Indeed I might have never seen it were it not that my companion, Howard Fox, bought home a copy of the DVD which I found the other day after several years of hiding in the shelves of our cinema favorites, still unwrapped. Why did Howard buy this film, I wondered, since even he has not requested to see it in all this time. Fortunately, I still have a great deal of curiosity, and sat down to watch it immediately.
Like its rather cumbersome title, Jones’ film may put off some potential viewers simply by the fact that its genre isn’t easily apparent. Yes, the work is akin to the films of Sam Pec6uuykinpah or the fictions of Cormac McCarthy, and like many of those creators’ works might be described as a contemporary Western.
So much of this work is in Spanish, however, that it might also be even described as a foreign film directed by an American. And at many times, the work seems closer to a Richard Linklater-like satire of Texas life such as his Bernie. Yet Bernie felt more comically down-home that does Jones’ often very literary film, which not only evokes the ghost of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but, unlike most Hollywood films, toggles back and forth between the recent past and the present through many of its early scenes, experimentally reimagines scenes from different perspectives, and interlinks several of the central figures in ways that are not apparent to the characters themselves, creating somewhat old-fashioned ironic situations.
Although Rachel clearly enjoys Perkins’ gentle company, she is hardly particular about the men in her life, claiming also to truly love her elderly husband, Bob (Richard Andrew Jones), who runs a local diner, and regularly having sex with the Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). Like Rachel, Lou Ann perceives the sexual event as an alternative to the increasing boredom of her life in border town of Vernon, Texas, as her husband daily grows more and more mentally unloosed.
One of the earliest scenes in the film reveals how the rookie border patrolman Norton is having a hard time of separating his policing duties from excessive violence, as he runs down two escaping would-be Mexican illegal immigrants, beating both the man and the woman, breaking the nose of the latter. The old timer’s look at those few who escape with tolerance—“somebody has to pick the strawberries”—while clearly Norton feels those who get away indicate his failure. His commander sums it up, “You were way overboard there, boy.”
We soon discover just how “overboard” Norton truly is, when older border patrolmen, observing a coyote eating something, discover that they’re gnawing on a recently buried body, that of Perkins’ Mexican friend, whom he has previously promised to take back to the small Mexican village of Jiménez if Melquiades died on this side of the border.
Perkins soon perceives that the local police have no intention of seeking out the murderer of his friend, and, after being shown the bullets which probably killed Melquiades, perceives his friend has likely been killed by one of the border patrolmen. Rachel, overhearing the border patrol leaders confiding that one of their men as killed the Mexican, reports it to Perkins, who, when his fears confirmed, takes direct action of his own, kidnapping Norton, and typing up his wife.
The remainder of this complex film becomes, accordingly, a kind of pilgrimage of purgation, wherein Perkins ritualistic forces Norton to take a voyage not only with but into his friends’ life. After demanding that the hand-cuffed border patrolman dig up Melquiades from his second burial, he takes the body and Norton back to Melquiades squalid home, insisting he sit at his place at the table, drink from his cup, and, soon after, put on the dead man’s own clothing, before setting out with Norton and the body to find his friend’s small Mexican hometown.
The sheer forlorn beauty of the landscape and their adventures along the way now take this film into almost mythical territory, as are tracked, first by Belmont and later by the border guard soldiers. Fearing for his life and terrified by the difficulties of their travel, Norton is asked by the elder to suffer the same indignities as the immigrants like Melquiades have. If sometimes these lessons in empathy seem a little too pat—as when the two men come across some young Mexican cowboys huddled around a broken television set watching the same soap opera which Norton had been watching while he brutally fucked his wife—others are spot on. Like a scene out of Frankenstein (with their own Frankenstein-like monster in tow), the two come across an old blind American who sits near his shack listening to Mexican music, the words to which he cannot comprehend. Like the blind man in Frankenstein, he offers them everything he has, which includes coffee and an evidently an unpleasant tasting gruel. And since the corpse they are carrying is quickly rotting, he provides them with anti-freeze which Perkins pumps through the dead man’s mouth into his veins. But when they begin the leave, the blind man—having previously told them that his son visits once a month to bring him food and necessities—admits that his son has not come for more than a year, and, since he believes the son has since died of cancer, begs them to kill him. He would gladly kill himself, but as a religious man cannot disappoint his god. Perkins, so we perceive, is also a man of belief, if not a man of god, and refuses the task.
Soon after, when Perkins is temporarily trapped under his fallen horse, Norton attempts to make an escape, running off into the desert which they have been attempting to cross. The old cowboy may be tempted to pick up his gun and shoot the fleeing victim, but realizes he will soon tire, that he has nowhere to go and no experience to take him anywhere he might be saved. The event ends in Norton being bitten by a rattlesnake, saved by Perkins who carries him, like a second corpse across the Rio Grande in an illegal crossing into Mexico in search of a native herbalist who might be able to save Norton’s life.
In one of the film’s numerous intentional coincidences, the woman curer turns out to be the very same woman who nose Norton has broken earlier, and recognizing her attacker, almost refuses to offer her help. Perkins gentle Spanish pleas for his survival changes her mind, and she draws out the venom with herbs, saving Norton’s life. The next morning, however, she seeks her revenge, braking his nose with her coffee pot.
By the time the two corpse-bearers finally reach a larger town near to where Melquiades has mapped our his hometown, Norton has suffered such traumatic experiences that he begins to seem like a changed man, without even knowing that back in Texas his wife has left him to return to their hometown in Cincinnati. In the small village they find the woman Melquiades has reported to be his wife in his photography, but she denies even knowing Perkins’ friend, only accidently pleading with him to not pursue the issue for fear of destroying what is clearly a new marriage. The town seems to have amnesia when they mention the town of Jiménez, Norton reacting with near madness after his hallucinatory voyage. But Perkins insists they move forward until they finally discover a building of fallen stones overlooking the very mountains and river Melquiades has described. Together, the two men—in a scene that seems more symbolic than real—patch up the walls and rethatch its roof before laying the stinking corpse into its gave below.
Perkins demands a final obsequious confession from Norton, who, after a few bullets flying near his face, breaks down in utter sorrow for his murderous act, resulting in the older cowboy offering up freedom and a horse to take the sinner back to his empty space in civilization. Ironically, it is Norton who asks the question, “Are you going to be okay?” when we perceive that Perkins will surely survive the trip back to where Norton may never be able to return.
While watching this profoundly intelligent work, I kept feeling that it should be required viewing for those numerous critics—Donald Trump in particular—of any tolerance we may wish to allow to illegal Mexican immigrants. I kept wishing that Mel’s admirable friend and caring Pete Perkins might be able to take some of these intolerant folk on the same journey which he had arranged for the insensitive young border patrolman. I wondered, moreover, how anyone might even imagine building a wall across the vast panoramas of mountains, deserts, and ragged terrain Jones and his cinematographers, Chris Menges and Hector Oretega, revealed in this film, with the intent to protect us from such strawberry pickers and gentle cowboys represented in this film.
Los Angeles, December 8, 2015