In its tale of death and loyalty along the U.S.-Mexico border, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada bears similarities to the great westerns of John Ford. Like that masterful storyteller, director Tommy Lee Jones (in his big-screen directorial debut) and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga revel in the beauty of nature's splendor and the small, lyrical moments of humanity.
But Three Burials is also filled with morbid humor, and its central journey -- lugging a decomposing corpse across the countryside for a proper burial -- has a post-modernist bent reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. In short, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a difficult film to categorize, but it's easy to fall under its spell.
Much of the credit must go to Arriaga, a gifted screenwriter who might just be Mexico's answer to Charlie Kaufman. While Arriaga's scripts certainly aren't the metaphysical mind-benders that Kaufman specializes in, both writers share a love for inventive structure and multilayered complexities. Like Arriaga's Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Three Burials is defiantly nonlinear, particularly the film's first half and its zigzagging between flashbacks and the present day.
Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a laconic Texas ranch foreman who is mourning the mysterious shooting death of his ranch-hand and close friend, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo). Despite Pete's doggedness, the ill-tempered sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to investigate the death of Melquiades, a Mexican immigrant. Pete, left to do his own digging, is led to a sullen border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has recently moved to the dust-choked town with his pretty – and pretty bored – wife, Lou Ann (January Jones).
Through fragmented scenes, we learn that Norton's shooting of Melquiades stemmed from misunderstanding. Pete does not know that, however -- nor would be particularly care. In a final act of unyielding loyalty to his deceased friend, Pete kidnaps the patrolman and forces him at gunpoint to help return Melquiades' body to the dead man's wife and children across the border.
Three Burials is a marvel on many levels. Deliberately paced and occasionally elliptical, the picture languorously proceeds with the sensibility of a European art film. Dialogue is sparse, but always economical. Cinematographer Chris Menges exquisitely captures the beauty of the surroundings, while Marco Beltrami's evocative music score is used to brilliant effect.
These disparate elements come together to create an environment that is as bleak as it is utterly real. This is a world in which casual sex is tapped as an alternative to boredom, whether it's Pete and the sheriff sharing the same mistress or Norton taking his wife from behind as she keeps her eyes glued on a God-awful TV soap opera.
The performances are first-rate. Tommy Lee Jones lets his baleful eyes do his acting, conveying the stoic loneliness of a man who has lost the only friend he ever had. But the actor-director is equally generous with his talented cast, all of whom have moments to shine. Yoakam and Melissa Leo (who plays the town floozy) are memorable in smaller roles, and even Levon Helm (of The Band fame) makes a lasting impression as a blind hermit.
But Barry Pepper is in a class by himself. With his sunken eyes and the expression of a guy enduring the world's worst toothache, he is both a villain and -- in some respects -- a protagonist. Pepper is given a Herculean task in Three Burials. He is both the heavy and an object of sympathy, particularly when Pete subjects him to a litany of humiliations -- grimly funny humiliations, incidentally -- as they head toward the dead man's final resting place. It is a testament to Tommy Lee Jones' direction, Arriaga's script and Pepper's tremendous range that Three Burials seamlessly weaves together such ostensible paradoxes.
Viewers can choose between 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame. Widescreen is obviously the way to go, especially to take in Chris Menges' masterful cinematography. The picture quality is detailed and the colors lifelike. There is slight grain in a few nighttime scenes, but nothing too noticeable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is clear and strong – and particularly impressive when gunshots ring out and reverberate through the back speakers. The DVD offers subtitles in English, Spanish and French.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a remarkable movie, which makes it all the more frustrating to find such an unremarkable treatment on DVD.
The only extra is a commentary track with Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam and January Jones – and it's a mighty tough-going one, at that. Tommy Lee is only slightly less tight-lipped than he is in the movie. Yoakam and Jones give it their best shot, but both have modest roles in Three Burials and consequently have little to offer besides their admiration for the film. In addition, there are long – and I mean looong – patches of dead air. It's baffling that Pepper, who is such a vital force in the picture, did not sit in for the commentary track.
This modern-day western might just be a masterpiece – which makes it all the more disappointing that Sony gives it such lackluster treatment on DVD. The lack of supplemental material here is the only factor that keeps this disc from being essential.