"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a film of incredible irony. Like the desert it holds a vista of equal extremes – endlessly spiritual yet brutal and nihilistic; it endorses the need for vengeance but then is also fervent in upholding the virtue of forgiveness. A powerful modern-day Western, "Three Burials" is written by Guillermo Arriaga, an award-winning Mexican screenwriter acclaimed for "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams." Arriaga's stories have death as a central theme (he was born in Mexico City and spent his childhood in one of its most violent sectors), and with this film his thematic sensibilities meet the visceral predilections of director Tommy Lee Jones who has plied the Kabuki Theatre and the films of Akira Kurosawa ("Seven Samurai") and Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch") as visual influences on his brilliant debut feature-film. "Three Burials" is a sublime achievement for American cinema and, of which the world perceives as its cornerstone, the Western film genre.
Beautifully shot by Chris Menges ("The Pledge") in Texas and Mexico, the film's story relies on Jones' contemplative direction particularly in how he is able to harmonise the simplicity of the narrative to the emotional nuance of the actors. Doing double-duty as both director and actor, Jones headlines the ensemble as Peter Perkins, a ranch foreman, who decides to employ a Mexican drifter called Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) on the basis of his simple, unstudied comment: "I'm a cowboy." Taken by Melquiades' straightforward demeanour, Peter and he become close friends. But Melquiades will be killed – shot dead – by Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a racist Border Patrolman who evades justice under the protection of his redneck superiors. Angry and disillusioned at the failure of a judicial system designed to protect a nation's citizens (in the current Bush-run Republican America where rights of immigrants have recently been called into question the film here makes a subtle political comment), Peter breaks into Mike's home, kidnaps and then forces him to dig up Melquiades' body. And so begins the two men's dangerous journey across the US-Mexico border set against Peter's resolve to fulfill his friend's wish to be buried in his hometown of Jiminez. People in screenwriter Arriaga's stories suffer: they are bitter and sad and lonely because we, as a people, in real life can be bitter and sad and lonely. Besides death, another big theme in "Three Burials" is alienation – almost every character in the film is bereft of prosperity. There's Mike Norton who is more passionate about masturbating over sterile pages of Hustler than make love to his beautiful wife (January Jones); the town Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) is waist-deep in an affair with Rachel (Melissa Leo) who herself is remorseless of infidelity to her husband, fucking a number of lovers with considered nonchalance; and then there's the blind old man (Levon Helm) that Peter and Mike meet on their way to Mexico, who lives alone in patient anticipation of a son he suspects may never come for him (the old man asks Peter to shoot him because he believes committing suicide will offend God; Peter refuses him on the same pretext). Underneath the film's wretched bleakness lies a warm equinox of spirituality. A seemingly conventional scene during the two men's journey is implicit of its thematic and stylistic savoir faire: a beat-up Mike stages a daring escape; barefoot he scuttles – his feet bleeding – across the hot desert sand and into a small field of beautiful sunflowers. Enveloped by a mean landscape – exhausted and angry at himself, perhaps even a little repentant of his crime – he begins to cry in the temporary safety of this pasture of flowers. It's an exquisite scene that grounds the negative and positive charge of film's themes. Using the symbolism borne out of the mechanics of faith, Arriaga and Jones create a reality that may well be surrealism. Intervals of black comedy between Peter and Mike's mutual anguish provide an unceremonious texture to the film's narrative (when Peter forces Mike to sleep next to the rotting foul-smelling corpse of Melquiades, he points out: "Pete, the ants are eating your friend." In a flawless indictment of physical and emotional realisation that verges on fringes of insanity and slapstick, sorry but I dare not reveal more, Tommy Lee Jones vindicates his Best Actor win at Cannes 2005). The gallows humour comes as an unexpected but pleasant surprise; it is also proof of the film's versatility in being both sacred and subversive.
Peter and Mike eventually cross into Mexico. Their physical and allegorical journey culminates to a rare kind of morality lesson, an evocation of a basic code of ethics that is above the ostensible decency of contemporary society. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a great film because it understands that human compassion, even in a sullen world, is not without merit. Built on a foundation of emotional, psychological, social and spiritual contrasts, it has the courage and wisdom to examine – without pretense and always within the margins of its story – the nature of existentialism, and an idea of heaven. - Adnan Khan