Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio César Cedillo, January Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Leo, Levon Helm, Vanessa Bauche
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence and sexuality
Language: English and Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 121
Date: 05/20/2005

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Body Trouble

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The more I think about this Western directed by Tommy Lee Jones, the more I like it. It's a clear homage to existential, masculine films like Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Monte Hellman's The Shooting (1966). And though it lacks the grungy, poetic grace of those films, it has its own unique, rugged atmosphere.

Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a bilingual rancher who hires the eponymous Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and quickly befriends him. That happens in flashback, as, when the film begins, Melquiades is dead. The culprit is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a border patrolman, who has moved out to the middle of nowhere with his bored, blonde wife (January Jones), for his job.

The screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), moves somewhat awkwardly back and forth in time to establish these characters, then catches up when Pete kidnaps Mike and drags him, with the body, back to Estrada's hometown for a proper burial. Every so often, the film flashes to secondary characters like the ineffectual sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and a lusty, married waitress (Melissa Leo), but they only detract from the film's attempted surreal, dreamy quality.

Jones weights the film in favor of the Spanish speakers, crossing the angelic Melquiades, his good deeds and his snapshots of home, with the brutish Americans who carry copies of Hustler out to the desert. But he thankfully avoids too much preaching on the controversial subject of border crossings. When it stays on track, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada turns into a thing of musty beauty.

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