Time and again, great actors have a great movie in them as a director. Tommy Lee Jones, working from a script by his friend Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of Amores Perros , has created an epic modern Western called The Three Burials of Melquiades Esrtada . Their film won Best Actor and Best Screenplay at Cannes due to its beauty and force. The empty, sun-baked spaces on both sides of the Rio Grande slowly, silently, seep in through your skin, as does an understanding of the cultures growing in the borderlands, hardscrabble as desert brush. Three Burials illustrates that an imbalance of power and affluence has caused Mexico to be our national scapegoat. As America struggles to decide what to do with its illegal immigrants, here is a film that supplies much-needed moral orientation.
Melquiades Estrada, Julio Cedilla, is dead in the desert, discovered being eaten by coyotes. He was gunned down by a rifle; later, the shells are recovered, and they are the same as those used by the Border Patrol. But Texas Sheriff Belmont, Dwight Yoakam, isn’t interested in stirring up trouble over someone he calls a "wetback". Estrada has no papers, no legal residence, no family; Belmont reasons that nobody will miss him. He is wrong.
When we see the vastness of the landscape comprising the US/Mexico border, we grasp instantly the futility of trying to police it. When some illegals slip by the Border Patrol, one of the agents is philosophical: "Well, somebody’s got to pick the strawberries." But the frustration of the job, and total lack of accountability, also attract more violent men. Mike Norton, Barry Pepper, catches a fleeing woman, and breaks her nose to keep her down. Norton, we learn, is the one who shot Estrada; it was an accident, but one that wouldn’t have happened if Norton saw Mexicans as fully human.
Pete Perkins, Tommy Lee Jones, is a quiet, solitary rancher, his long-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way to the top, his weathered face on the verge of tears. He was Estrada’s employer, and best and only friend. Perkins discovers that Norton was the killer, kidnaps him, makes him dig up the body, and takes them across the border to return Estrada to his family in Mexico. In one amazing scene, a child plays an out of tune piano at a makeshift Mexican bar. As his world tilts in drunken dischord, Perkins wonders, not without reason, if he has gone mad.
If The Three Burials had kept this trajectory, it would have taken its place as a top-notch Western about vengeance in the Sam Peckinpah mold. But Jones and Arriaga have something else in mind. Norton’s own wife says he is beyond redemption. But, as in the movie Crash , the victimizer will be confronted by his victims. The journey is about rescinding his power, leaching off his venom, preparing the way for repentance.
It can take extraordinary measures to strip away hatred; sometimes, even a lifetime in prison isn’t enough. When the movie was over, I thought about Zacarias Moussaoui. Here is a man whose sense of right and wrong is so short-circuited, when he is confronted by those he harmed, he says his only regret is that he couldn’t cause even more suffering. Would killing him right the scales? Tommy Lee Jones’s movie asks us to re-examine our own values, demonstrating with the terrible power of a desert storm that no one – no one – is beyond redemption.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.