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. Long time actor, first-time director Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as a contemporary Texas cowboy named Pete who befriends a Mexican “vaquero” named Melquiades Estrada.
Estrada (Julio Sedillo) is an illegal looking for steady work and a brighter future here in the land o’plenty. Flashbacks explain the kinship between the 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.
When Estrada is mysteriously killed, Pete becomes incensed by indifference on the part of 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 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 sneak up on you.
Although my initial reaction was largely visceral (I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, it started to feel overlong, and I was repulsed by some of the graphic scenes) I slowly came to grok that I had been taken on an Orphic journey; suddenly it made sense. The film offers hope that, despite the cynicism that abounds in this world, there is still a strong case to me made for holding true to friendship, loyalty and basic human decency. And that’s a good thing.