Burying a body, resurrecting a code of living
No one needs to be told how long Pete Perkins has been part of the landscape in Southwest Texas to know that it is something approximating forever. Pete, played by Tommy Lee Jones in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” Jones’ directorial debut, knows the land and the life, and how the two intertwine a few miles from the Mexican border, in a way that speaks not of years spent there, but generations. A rancher who doesn’t talk much, Pete nonetheless speaks the language of the illegal immigrants, the gringos who come from far away, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the folks like him, who have been there forever.
The region is dry, vast and sparsely populated, and to survive there you need to know the land, the language and the inhabitants. Directions from one town to the next might include turning south at an unnamed sierra, riding horseback 20 kilometers, and asking at the next village how to get to your ultimate destination. To the outsider, the landmarks are indistinct. For those who live there, the terrain becomes a part of life.
So when Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), a timid ranch hand living illegally on the U.S. side, says he wants to be buried in Jimenez, the tiny spot in Mexico from where he came, Pete takes the words seriously. At first, Pete thinks his friend is joking: Melquiades is young and vigorous. And he knows the lay of the land, and he is cautious regarding the Border Patrol and what it can do to him. But when Pete hears the earnestness in Melquiades’ voice, he vows that his friend’s will shall be done.
It turns out Melquiades’ worries are justified. Innocently firing at a coyote to keep it away from his sheep, he draws the attention of Border Patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). Mike is a hothead and a hard-ass, a jerk to the core. Even more threatening, he is a newcomer, recently transplanted from Cincinnati, and has had to be restrained before in his overzealous enforcement of the law. “Someone’s got to pick the berries,” a superior advises him, when three illegals escape the patrol.
The message hasn’t gotten through. With barely a warning, Mike returns Melquiades’ fire and kills the shepherd with a shot to the chest.
The Border Patrol and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) conspire to not ask too many questions about the incident. In a series of scenes that jump back and forth in time ” probably unnecessary, but handled relatively well by Jones ” the authorities bury the killing by burying Melquiades. First, he is put in a shallow grave near the site of his death (burial No. 1); then, in a slightly more decent spot, a field visible from the local high school football stadium (burial No. 2), but far away from his requested final resting place. Pete, his ears attuned to all local goings-on, learns the truth quickly enough.
Here, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” makes a vital turn. Showing stunning ruthlessness, Pete kidnaps Mike, and, to show his seriousness of purpose, he makes damn sure Mike’s wife (January Jones) won’t interfere. Pete and Mike then set off on their journey on horseback, through the forbidding desert and mountains, with a corpse strapped to a spare horse. The two ” a determined friend and an unwilling stranger ” deliver Melquiades to Jimenez, an ancient spot in the Mexican desert that long ago fell to ruins, for burial No. 3.
Pete’s purpose is clear: Keeping a promise he made to a friend. But the intentions of Jones, as the director ” and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams,” “Amorres Perros”) ” only come into focus over the final half of the film. Whipping the staggering Mike in a manner that suggests “The Passion of the Christ,” Pete is insistent on passing along the code of Southwest Texas to Mike. Jones’ skill as a director is revealed by the film’s end, and it makes one anxious to see what he tackles next.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org