starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam
screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga
directed by Tommy Lee Jones
by Walter Chaw Crash by way of Cormac McCarthy, Tommy Lee Jones's "fuck you" of a mouthful The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is another fairytale salvo from the race divide, fired from that good place that results in cultural artifacts so unbearably cheesy and proselytizing that any potential heat is lost long before the second reel has finished unspooling. It's about serendipity, this elegy for the American West, hence no transgression is left unredeemed in its long, rambling, "it's good for you, so swallow it" narrative, with blame going in equal portion to Jones--whose smug, smarter-than-you are attitude has shoehorned him into prestigious position as the resident asshole of Man of the House, Men in Black II, and The Missing--and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros), who paints every Mexican in the film in the same shade of saintly. (All the gringos, on the other hand, have a lot to learn about the grand mystery of being human.) It's tedious, unsurprising stuff, this picture--the kind of thing that gets the Right in a bunch about how Hollywood is a tool of the subversive Lefties while making smart folks on both sides of the Culture War cringe before its condescension.
Spitting out monotonous monosyllables through a crease in his face, robo-Neo-Con Pete Perkins (Jones) is kind to Illegals crossing the border. Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is one such Illegal, a noble guy so in love with his wife that when he's offered the sexual companionship of non-descript beauty Lou Ann (January Jones, the new Bridget Fonda), he demurs and dances with her instead. Lou Ann is married to sadistic, serial masturbator Norton (Barry Pepper), who will, of course, ironically serve as the instrument of Estrada's demise and then, of course again, be forced to dig up the poor Illegal and head south of the border with Pete to bury Estrada properly in his fictional, idealized hometown. Along the way, we meet laconic Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), who whiles away the minutes between laconic monologues banging erstwhile small town Flo, Rachel (Melissa Leo). Rachel also happens to be banging Pete, who learns from their adultery the identity of poor Neanderthal Norton. The best part of the film features The Band drummer Levon Helm in a flat-magnificent cameo as a Frankenstein-inspired (maybe Saboteur-inspired) blind hermit Pete and Norton encounter along the way. The worst part is the rest of it.
We meet Norton as he punches a fleeing illegal alien in the face and, naturally, we'll see her again when Norton needs someone to save his life after a snakebite. We note that Norton is a connoisseur ofHUSTLER and likes to fuck his wife Lou Ann without foreplay--and understand instantly that he's a bad person in need of killing or hard redemption. Pete is shaded half-heartedly with some hint of nuance, but only of the "he's a hard man to like," classic-western variety, not the postmodern, Unforgiven type of revisionism in whose company I suspect The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada would like to be seen. It's just not smart enough to be self-regarding, managing mainly to be exactly what it is: the tale of an old, vengeful fart taking a disrespectful, racist young jerk on a coerced road trip to self-discovery. The whole picture stinks of the kind of gallows brinkmanship that finds valour in the torture and humiliation of a bad man without dirtying the hero's hands in the process of meting out cosmic justice. It is what it seeks to remonstrate: a romance of the satisfaction of revenge taken on behalf of a man painted as so gentle that it's hard to believe he would have approved of the lengths to which his pathetic (a nice moment has drunken Pete proposing to understandably-reluctant Rachel) good ol' buddy goes in burying his flyblown corpse on a godforsaken bluff in the middle of nowhere. You can feel Tommy Lee Jones reaching for the feeling that it's all big empty gestures, but just the prettiness of the film and the largely sacrosanct icon of man's-man Pete dooms the picture to smug genre exercise. Originally published: January 25, 2006.