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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada by Juan A. Tarancón


Si muero lejos de ti.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005)  

By Juan A. Tarancón

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005) reads like a corrido: Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) kidnaps Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and forces him to disinter the body of the Mexican immigrant he killed by accident (or due to sheer stupidity) and to accompany him on a journey into Mexico to give him a proper burial in his native town. The film presents itself as a contemporary western, and, as most contemporary westerns, it ultimately turns out to be about national values, about how the western landscape is lived, about masculinity, about contemporary xenophobia, and about border figures in search for their identity in a changing land, and these topics are presented as an evocative conflict between the Old and the New West.

 The story starts off when two border patrolmen discover a barely buried corpse somewhere along the Texasfrontier with Mexico. The dead man turns out to be Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), a Mexican immigrant that has been working illegally in the United Statesas a ranch hand. Having promised Melquiades to take his body back to his hometown in Mexico should he die in the United States, Pete Perkins sets off to discover who killed his friend and then to honor his promise. Approximately the first half of the film is devoted to the investigation of the murder, which was committed by white-trash Mike Norton, an inexperienced patrolman that had recently come from Cincinnatiwith his youthful wife Lou Ann (January Jones). Once the murderer is identified, the rest of the film chronicles the journey into Mexicoto give Mel the burial he once had wished for, away from the “pinche billboards”. Pete violently kidnaps Mike Norton, forces him to dig up the body of Melquiades and the two, with Mel’s dead body tied to a mule, start a journey of epic (and surrealist) proportions to return Melquiades to his village in Mexico.

 For nearly the first half of the film, the narrative is non-linear –similar to the other films scripted by Guillermo Arriaga, Amores perros and 21 Grams. The present time of the investigation, which is being carried officially by Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) and on the side by Pete Perkins, is disrupted by the hasty presentation of past events. These are not ordinary flashbacks but part of a fragmented narrative where present and past episodes are jumbled together. Now and then the leaps in time feel gratuitous (and the reactions of spectators and critics have not always been warmhearted) but for the most part they suit the film’s atmosphere just fine. During this section, the film represents the West as inhabited nature. The episodes follow one another unpredictably and at a fast pace, providing the spectator with multiple and puzzling points of view. Although this “new” West is depicted in terms of neighborhood, the result is an alienating territory of enclosed individual spheres and irreconcilable personal divisions. With the exception of the friendship between Pete and Melquiades, the personal rapports established in each episode seem to last only as long as that particular episode goes on. The New West that results from this section is a kaleidoscopic mixture of man-made geographies: weird trailer parks, suburbs, shopping malls, diners, motels, garbage dumps, and the pinche billboards that Melquiades seems to loathe. This first half of the film is a representation of the violence towards the sacred West of old times and a study of how people adjust to the contemporary US West. Take for instance the sexual escapade of Pete, Mel, Rachel (Melissa Leo) and Lou Ann. In a cheerless vision of the New West, two illegitimate couples end up dancing awkwardly in the late afternoon in a junkyard amidst wrecked cars and industrial debris. There is nothing spiritual to it, no truth revealed, just people living in the new landscape and creating the New West.

  The second part takes the spectator on a journey of epic proportions, reminiscent of numerous westerns by John Ford and Sam Peckinpah and, above all, of Simon Wincer’s adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove –in Wincer’s Lonesome Dove, Captain Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) promises his friend Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) to take his body from Montana to his favorite place in Texas on the banks of the Guadalupe River where he used to go with his one true love (and he keeps his promise). In The Three Burials, once Pete, Mike and the body of Melquiades set out for the town of Jiménez, there is a shift in tempo and in narrative structure. The many shifting micronarratives of the first section are abandoned in favor of one single epic metanarrative. The postmodern ecosystem of the border town is replaced by a West of Edenic possibilities filmed on location in the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend National Park in West Texas (and it would be unfair not mention the magnificent job of cinematographer Chris Menges). The central image of this part is that of the mythic lone rider on a horse crossing the immense western landscape, and the many different perspectives give way to the dominant point of view of the traditional western hero. However, the solution adopted by Pete Perkins is challenged at every turn by unexpected human presence (such as the group of Mexicans watching a soap opera in the middle of the desert), by the bizarre moments of excess brought about by the rotting corpse, and, most notably, by the madness that gradually overtakes Pete and by the film’s ambiguous ending. The Three Burials weighs up the values of the New West and the legitimacy (and the soundness) of the myth of the Old West and at the end remains essentially unconcerned, offering contradictory conclusions.

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