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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones is probably best known for his performances in such popular films as Men in Black and The Fugitive. Now he tries his hand at directing with the border tale The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (opening February 10 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas with an appearance by the filmmaker on opening night). The film was inspired by a real 1997 murder of a young Mexican-American by a Marine unit working the border patrol in Texas. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando has this review.

In the wide-open terrain of the U.S-Mexico border, shots ring out.

CLIP SFX gunfire

A young, solitary border patrol agent is caught off guard. He scrambles for his rifle and in a panic returns fire. His victim is a young Mexican worker who was simply protecting his goats from a coyote. The officer flees the scene but the body is eventually found.

CLIP The deceased died of a gunshot wound when a bullet entered between forth and rib impact caused lung to burst and cause severe hemorrhaging took 15 to 20 minutes to die and estimate he died seven days ago.

The body turns out to be that of Melquiades Estrada, an illegal immigrant who worked with a local ranch foreman named Pete Perkins. When Perkins discovers that Estrada was killed, he wants two things: to see the person responsible for the murder punished, and to take possession of the body.

CLIP Perkins: When youre through give Melquiades to me.

Sheriff: Youre crazy.

Not crazy but determined to make good on a promise he made to bury Estrada back in Mexico. But the authorities pay little heed to either of Perkins requests. So Perkins kidnaps Mike Norton, the man responsible for his friends murder, and forces him to exhume Estradas body from the cemetery. Then Perkins takes Norton back to Estradas house.

CLIP Perkins: Melquiades lived here, thats his bed, kept his clothes there, that was his plate that was his cup.

In this exquisitely simple scene, Estrada is made all too real for the bigoted agent who shot him. Now Norton understands what it means to take a life. Estrada is referred to only as the Mexican or wetback by those investigating the crime, but this scene tenderly brings him out in all his human dimensions. The empty stillness of his home makes us feel the loss all the more poignantly.

CLIP Perkins: Those were his work clothes. Those were his dress clothes. Put the work clothes on and put the dress clothes on Melquiades.

Such emotion makes The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada a compelling and beguiling film because it unexpectedly extends this humanity to all the characters, even the ones who seem unredeemable.

CLIP Perkins: Ask for his forgiveness now or go to hell.

The film is a personal project of actor Tommy Lee Jones who shot much of it on his West Texas ranch. The script, which at heart is about the friendship of Perkins and Estrada, grew out of a friendship between Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Together they craft a story that captures the conflicts, contrasts and cultural mix of life along the Tex-Mex border. They also turn the terrain that Jones knows so well into a character as vivid as any of the human ones.

Jones cites the influence of Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, and Jean-Luc Godard. Those are some cinematic heavyweights but Jones doesnt try to imitate them. Instead, he draws on Peckinpahs sense of the passing legacy of the old west; taps into Kurosawas humanism and dynamic cultural mix; and employs Godards notion that every film has a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order.

In contrast to many Hollywood films, Three Burials does not glorify violence. Estradas death is abrupt, brutal and shocking. Throughout the film, Jones and Arriaga remind us what it means to take a life. But the filmmakers also offer an ironic counterpoint to Estradas death when Perkins encounters a old blind man living alone and desperate to die.

CLIP Blind man: I wanted to ask you a favor, if you could shoot me.

Perkins: We cant do it.

Blind man: I dont want to offend god by killing myself. Its a problem.

Perkins: We dont want to offend god either.

Blind man: Itd be the best thing to do.

Although none of the characters is depicted as religious, a sense of spirituality permeates the film. The journey that Perkins and Norton embark on to bury Estrada in Mexico is like a pilgrimage, and has a purifying aspect to it with redemption waiting at the end. Theres also poetry in the film. Not a sentimental kind poetry but rather an ability to find gruff beauty in the world.

CLIP Music

Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has the beauty of a well-told tale. Like Jones lined, weathered face, this film feels lived in and genuine; it reveals Joness affinity for and knowledge of the region. His directing style is deceptively simple yet thematically he conveys complex ideas about human experience.

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