By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2006)
The spirit of Sam Peckinpah lives on (sans slo-mo) in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. First-time director Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as a contemporary Texas cowboy named Pete who befriends a Mexican “vaquero” (the namesake of the movie’s title). Estrada is an illegal looking for steady work and a brighter future here in the land o’plenty. Jones utilizes flashbacks to illustrate the growing kinship between the two compadres, who bond in the usual “cowboy way”- drinkin’ and whorin’, sleeping under the stars, and reaching a general consensus that A Cowboy’s Life Is The Life For Me (as a great man once sang.) In the key vignette, Estrada confides that, if “something” should ever happen to him, he wishes to be buried in his home town. In half-drunken sentiment, Pete vows to see it through if the unthinkable happens. Guess what happens next?
When Estrada is mysteriously killed, Pete becomes incensed by the indifference of the local authorities, who seem reluctant to investigate. When he learns through the grapevine that his friend was the victim of negligent homicide, thanks to a bone-headed border patrol officer (Barry Pepper), he goes ballistic. He abducts the officer, forces him to dig up the hastily buried Estrada, and informs him that the three amigos are taking a little horseback trip to Mexico (and it ain’t gonna be anything like Weekend at Bernie’s).
Much unpleasantness ensues as the story evolves into a “man on a mission to fulfill an oath” tale…on the surface. Despite the simplistic setup, astute viewers will begin to realize that there is a deeper, mythic subtext; this is one of those films that can really sneak up on you. Although my initial reaction was more visceral than philosophical (I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, it started to feel overlong, and I was repulsed by some of the more graphic scenes) I eventually realized that I had just been taken on an Orphic journey, and it suddenly all made sense. The film gives you hope that, despite the rampant cynicism that abounds in this world, there is something to be said for holding true to a personal code that covets friendship, loyalty and a deep sense of honor.