THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA—if Sam Peckinpah hadn’t been half-cocked (and 2/3 crocked) when he made Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia it might have come out as well as this 2005 sleeper, directed by & starring Tommy Lee Jones. It’s unrelentingly tough: when I saw it with my dove-natured girlfriend she bailed early, indicative of the limited audience appeal stamped all over it—bleak characters, mean behavior, allusion-laced narrative and that tongue-swallowing title.
A Mexican vaquero (Julio Cedillo), working illegally on the US side of the line, is gunned down by a nasty border patrolman (Barry Pepper). When local authorities stuff the case, the victim’s Texan cowboy buddy decides to provide reckoning. Justice is a key here, as opposed to simple vengeance, though there is no little bit of deserved smackin’ around meted out as the cowboy (Jones, playing it to a tee) drags (literally) the perp down southaways.
Beautifully photographed by Chris Menges, quietly and moodily scored by Marco Beltrami, salsa’d with pitch-dark humor, and directed with an actors ear to his fellows and an artists eye for composition, these are three funerals worth attending.
With Dwight Yoakum, January Jones, Melissa Leo and Levon Helm, the 121 minute yarn took $15,000,000 to make, returning but $9,045,000, though it cinched strong reviews. Its status is bound to grow over time.
Great location work of striking, unforgiving landscapes in Texas, natural and urban, the former around Big Bend Natl. Park and sections of Jones’ own ranch property, the latter around parts of Odessa and Midland. The actor’s debut in the pilot seat ties in with a burial-trek theme he is clearly taken with, as per Lonesome Dove and The Homesman.
Based on both a real incident and on Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”, it’s real and absurd, poetic and foul, vicious and redemptive. You’ll never view a snakebit-swollen-foot-poison-lancing the same way again.