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The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada
cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo

director: Tommy Lee Jones

116 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
First up, this film received an 'R' rating in the USA for violence and sexual content which was commuted to a 15 certificate by the time it reached here; with regard to the American film classification board, and to paraphrase Lou Ann in this particular movie, those sons of bitches are beyond redemption.

This is Tommy Lee Jones second venture at directing after The Good Old Boys, a 1995 TV movie, and is a complex, lyrical, violent, and at times beautiful picture. Divided into chapters (The first burial..; The second burial...; The Journey; The third burial...) the film opens with a confident blend of straight-forward narration and flashbacks, showing the discovery of the corpse of Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedilla, Bordertown), the introduction of his friend Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones, The Missing, Men In Black), and the arrival in the Texas border town of border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, Battlefield Earth, Ripley Under Ground) and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones, Love Actually, American Wedding).

We discover that Melquiades was a 'wetback', an illegal immigrant from over the border in Mexico, who riding by one day gets work as a cowboy alongside Pete Perkins; due to the fragmented storytelling the two men's relationship at first appears too casual to explain Pete's reaction to the Mexican's death, but gradually their closeness emerges and illuminates the desperate loneliness not just of Pete, but of all the leading characters.

Melquiades has been shot, and Pete, in the face of Sheriff Belmont's lack of concern, determines to establish who was responsible. Pete's haphazard investigation, challenging the Border Patrol on what ammunition they use, is resented by Belmont (Dwight Yoakam, Wedding Crashers), as he and Pete share the favours of Rachel (Melissa Leo, 21 Grams) the married owner/ waitress of the local diner. It is Rachel who discovers Melquiades' killer and her motivation for revealing the name to Pete, although never explained, can only be tied up with her own desperate loneliness and her friendship with Lou Ann. In a violent attack Pete kidnaps Patrolman Norton, disinters Melquiades, and sets off on a journey over the border into Mexico to bury the body in his home village.

There are techniques displayed in this film that one feels Jones has absorbed in his long and successful acting career; scenes tend to be short, dialogue is usually minimal and sometimes unintelligible, occasionally the admiration for what Jones has achieved is qualified somewhat when the direction appears a little too smart. Notwithstanding criticism this film is almost flawless; there are simple scenes of incredible insight into how people are, as if a western suddenly unearthed a powerful truth which was immediately discarded by the necessities of storytelling.

Some scenes stand out, and not always for what they show rather than for what lies behind them. When Lou Ann tells husband Mike she is on a diet, he challenges her ridiculous assertion that she is "a little bit" fat in what seems to be a moment of genuine tenderness, only for him to tell her she is "a hot momma" and penetrate her from behind as she leans over her chopping board, pained attention never wavering from the soap opera on TV. When Sheriff Belmont picks out Pete in his rifle sights his finger prepares to squeeze the trigger only for some higher conscience to prevent him from eliminating his rival. The friendship between Rachel and Lou Ann is understated, loneliness and longing only hints in Melissa Leo's eyes and the superb January Jones' half-smiles.

The finale is a little disappointing, not the parting of Pete and Mike but the latter's 'redemption' which precedes it, far stronger is the scene of Mike's tears as he views a crass daytime soap opera with a party of uncomprehending Mexican cowboys by the side of the trail. Nothing is explained in The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada and it is questionable if anyone is saved, but there is friendship and generosity, and hope if you look for it, and often that is enough.

DVD extras: a making-of featurette, a look at creating the music, some extended/ deleted scenes, a commentary track, some interviews, and a trailer.

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