Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) A Film by Tommy Lee Jones

Haunted by the ghosts of Sam Peckinpah and John Huston, Tommy Lee Jones' only theatrical feature to date, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is a strange, uneven neo-western whose slim storyline is often held together only by an overwhelming vision of the West as a place of collapsing moral fiber and dissolving identity. Jones directs himself as the paunchy, mumbly ranch hand Pete Perkins from the desolate town of Van Horn, Texas, and Perkins' modus operandi throughout the film is to quietly, insistently preserve a tradition of moral responsibility and human empathy in his dull border town, where multicultural tensions flare up regularly. Policeman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is at the center of his town's bigotry, a volatile figure who spends his days chasing "wetbacks" through the dusty Texas landscape and indifferently disrobing his bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones) in unlikely domestic spaces. Pepper's one-note performance does little to disguise the fact that he's the loud caricature of the narrow-minded American authority, and much of the film's issues lie in its simplistic staging of the American way of life, which is boiled down to "fucking billboards," prostitution, emotional distance, and ugliness. Unsurprisingly, given the authorial one-two punch here - Jones and notoriously heavy-handed writer Guillermo Arriaga - Mexico embodies a sacred land in the film's universe.

As such, the film's plot works to reinforce that image of unshakeable nationalism. Hinging on the sudden, sporadic killing of Perkins' friend and colleague Melquiades Estrada (Julio C├ęsar Cedillo), Arriaga then weaves a structure around the three separate burials of Melquiades' corpse, the first two of which are considered rash and unholy by Perkins. Simple enough, it seems, but Arriaga insists on fracturing the chronology a bit to insure that viewers witness the banal death of Melquiades from more than one perspective. The third burial is Perkins' attempt to offer the proper closure to Melquiades' spirit, and it involves him kidnapping Norton, forcing him to dig up the body, and escorting both the body and a hand-cuffed Norton across the border to seek an ideal resting place. Perkins enacts the whole affair with a yawning tenacity, not necessarily vengeful in his justice but exhaustedly adhering to his own sense of spiritual and moral duty.

The character gives Jones a comprehensive workout in the kind of gruff but oddly gentle, outdoorsy conservatism that his screen persona has so often imparted within Hollywood in recent years. Perkins feels very much like the rough draft of Ed Tom Bell in the Coens' No Country for Old Men, with the weary stares and interior digressions of that character echoed here in more primitive forms. Part of this incompleteness has to do with the film's shoddy sound mix, which subsumes voices into the static drone of the West, but it also stems from the generally paltry writing and directorial development. The film relies on its audience buying the close bond between Pete and Melquiades in order to succumb to the act of brotherhood that occurs in the second half, but the script only allows the two characters a couple of clipped, aimless scenes together, hoisted on the assumption that sharing afternoon hookers is enough to signal immutable friendship. Moreover, Jones spends more time hovering over Norton and his vile police companion Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) during the first half of the film than he does any of the more interesting and ostensibly primary characters. Nonetheless, even in the absence of the glue that would make Perkins a complete character, Jones still comes across as an element unto himself, a tired patriarch once shown respect and admiration and now merely a ghost roaming in his own territory.

The first half of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada owes something to Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show as a postmodern homage to the small-town rhythms of early Westerns by Ford and Hawks. Jones aims to capture the lazy routines of Van Horn, limiting the scale to a few classic locations and a rotating cast of townies. Sometimes, as when the camera rests on January Jones' frustrated and adrift beauty in the local diner (shot in a grotesque shade of blue and uncomfortably overexposed), or when macho camaraderie is established at the police station, the film casually develops an internal flow, but other times Jones seems to be roped in by Arriaga's gimmicky suspense-building maneuvers, which actually stomp out the director's attempt to get on the town's wavelength. Free of the script's needless devices in the second half, Jones strays from Bogdanovich to settle into a patchwork, nearly stream-of-consciousness trip through Mexico to bury Melquiades. The body decays (the resulting corpse's gloriously low-rent production values allows it to stand in as a symbol of death rather than a specific person), and surrealism starts to creep in. Jones appears at ease with the kind of loose linearity that this chapter offers him, unsurprising for a man whose default gaze is a tired, no-nonsense one that stares incessantly forward. As the sun-baked march coalesces and begins to turn the bad guy good, Levon Helm arrives for a haunting cameo as a blind man living alone on his porch in Mexico, with nothing to do but listen to the radio sullenly now that his son has died over the border. A professed Bible adherent, the man requests that Perkins kill him for fear that God might disapprove of suicide.

Helm only returns to the film in a punctuational close-up shortly thereafter, and it's too bad that his moment does not last longer. His character underscores a devastating moral ambiguity that only hovers over the film tangentially, hinting at a full emergence in the last act but ultimately a minor subtext. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, instead, seems confused about its intentions, doubling as a preachy argument for multicultural tolerance as well as a more nuanced look at the tensions between old-world and new-world codes of justice. Jones needs a screenwriter to match his archaic sensibilities, not a guy known for his loopy manipulations to admittedly simple stories. It's no surprise that the film is at its most strangely compelling when it's sliding amorphously through a hallucinatory Mexican landscape like the drunk in Under the Volcano; like the best of Jones' performances, these moments carry a relaxed but undeniably melancholy air. The rest is more suited, well, to a performance like Pepper's.

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