The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: Turning the Western on its head

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By Eric Ray

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, is a welcome deviation from the traditional American western, which is often identified with machismo and Manifest Destiny. The film centers on the death of the enigmatic title character, a Mexican-born cowboy, who arrives in Texas illegally, and the events that follow his senseless killing at the hands of a border patrol agent. The film begins with the discovery of Estrada’s body, which is left to decompose in the desert.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Pete Perkins, an operator of a small cattle business. He meets Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedilio), who arrives, looking for a job. Estrada’s origins are mysterious, but Perkins gives him a job anyway and the two become close friends, beginning a companionship with a bored waitress, Rachel (Melissa Leo). Meanwhile, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a Border Patrol guard and his wife, Lou Ann (January Jones) move into the small, dusty town from Cincinnati, so Norton can take his post on the Texas-Mexico border, rounding up illegal immigrants. Norton takes less interest in his wife than his Hustler magazine and his job. Lou Ann hangs out with Rachel and the two have affairs with Perkins and Estrada, having nothing else to do. During one of his shifts, Norton brutally assaults a group of Mexicans trying to enter the country, breaking the nose of a young woman. Later, Norton is alone on a shift when he mistakes Estrada’s gunfire as an attack on him and shoots him dead. The local sheriff, Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) leads a perfunctory investigation, not at all interested in “some wetback,� as he calls him. Not satisfied, Perkins does his own investigation and is led to Norton. He kidnaps him and forces him to help him bury his friend across the border. We learn that before his death, Melquiades requests Perkins to bury him in his hometown, should he die on the U.S. side.

The rest of the film details the obsessive, often darkly comical journey of the two men and a decomposing corpse. They meet an assortment of characters including an old, blind hermit (Levon Helm, formerly the drummer of The Band), who requests the men to shoot him and the young Mexican woman, whom Norton beat up earlier. When a rattlesnake bites Norton, the woman helps him, but not without getting even.

The Three Burials is a departure from many films that are considered “Western.� Rather than romanticizing the genre’s usual characteristics such as conquering and “taming� land at the expense of Native Americans or Mexicans, the film, subdued at times, is a statement against the U.S. treatment of Mexican immigrants. There is a sense of history, in terms of the impact land grabbing, labor exploitation, and brutality at the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol has on the American Southwest (or U.S. occupied Mexico). The film’s weakness is mainly its wishful thinking, particularly its conclusion, but there aren’t too many wrong notes with the performances or the story.

The film has come under attack from the usual right-wing contingent, who attack Three Burials for its portrayal of the Border Patrol as “bad guys� and the illegal immigrants as the “good guys.� This is a typical response to any depiction that challenges imperialistic institutions, in this case, the subordination of impoverished Mexicans and other indigenous poor to the American political and economic elite, which is often successful at pitting American workers versus immigrant laborers. But the criticism has no basis. The Norton character isn’t simply portrayed as a thug, though his behavior is thuggish. He treats his predicament with hostility and posturing, but under the surface, is a pathetic self-abuser. In other words, it is not a crude caricature of law enforcement.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which had a limited release late last year, and now getting wider release, is a largely overlooked film. Perhaps its understated approach eluded the Hollywood hype machine. But its comment on the relationship between the U.S. establishment and the Mexican poor is unmistakable.