We all falter a little from time to time. To err is human right? So after the superb scripts of Amores Perros and 21 Grams no one would think bad of Guillermo Arriaga if his pen had dried a little. Not so though, as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada earned best screenplay at Cannes last year, and I have to say I side with the French. This emotional and subtle modern day Western is a tale of honesty, retribution and loyalty. As a big-screen directorial debut, it does Tommy Lee Jones justice.
Jones also stars as Pete Perkins, a hard-working Texas rancher, who hires an illegal Mexican immigrant called Melquiades (Julio Cedillo). Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a trigger-happy border guard, kills Melquiades, but the incident gets covered up. Attempts by Pete to uncover the truth surrounding Melquiades death go unheeded. The local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) is as impotent towards the case as he is for local café waitress Rachel. Border guards seem content to let sleeping ‘wetbacks’ lie. Whereas the indolent heartless Norton just seems to pass the time with the desert, a copy of Hustler and his right hand as witnesses. Conversely, his wife (January Jones) deals with her mind-numbing and breakneck sex-life with a bit of adultery. All the characters are subtly intertwined, some with amusing connections.
The time-shuffling script flicks between near-past and present creating intrigue and questions without distracting from, or confusing, the narrative. Melquiades is first shown as a dead body, then as a living character, then to his burial, then we see his shooting – each shift piquing our curiosities into driving the story forward. This non-linearity stops at a crucial point when Pete, learning that Norton was the killer, takes justice into his own hands. The story becomes shifts from frustration to one of retribution – not only for Melquiades’ body and Norton’s sins – but for everyone we have encountered.
Pete saddles up with Norton as hostage and a dead body as cargo, heading across the desert to Mexico. Here the dissipated border town becomes a vast rugged landscape. And what awe-inspiring views – you almost forget that they’re transporting a corpse and chased by the police and border guards!
This journey evokes a little of David Lynch’s The Straight Story with its chance meetings and little scenes, albeit with a dustier landscape. One which sticks out happens after Norton gets bitten by a snake only to be healed by a Mexican herbalist. This scene has a poetic resolve that another, where they encounter an old blind man who suspects his son living in the city has died, does not – but it does have one slightly more Godly.
The heaviest debt though is owed to Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in its scenery, gruesome nature, antiheros and us-and-them chases across the Mexican desert. Oh and lets not forget that both involve transporting dead objects. Like Bring Me the Head, it gives homage to Sergio Leone westerns but is played in the modern day with modern problems. Three Burials examines poverty, indignity and race; but pulls the emotional punch to a tender stroke. It combines stoicism, and reprisal into a compassionate narrative. With each character transcending their shifting and shattered beginnings to a conscious and spiritual close. To err is human, but to forgive, divine.