Year Released: 2005
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yaokam, January Jones, Melissa Leo. Levon Helm
(R, 121 min.)
"A promise made is a debt unpaid." Robert W. Service
This tale of poetic justice is as stark and beautiful as its West Texas landscape and as unpredictable as the creatures that inhabit it. Although it careens between cynicism and sentimentality, the grotesque and absurd, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is intriguing, at times poignant, and guaranteed to generate a great discussion afterward.
The fact that Tommy Lee Jones, who both starred and directed, received the best actor award at Cannes with Guillermo Arriaga garnering Best Screenplay honors as well, shows how well it played to its French/International audience. But I’m not so sure his friends and neighbors in San Saba, Texas, would be so pleased with Tommy’s efforts. His modern morality tale panders to the European elite and does little to shake their preconceived notions about an America that is shallow, hypocritical, and corrupt.
The story is a simple one, although the telling is not. Border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) accidentally kills Melquiades Estrada, an illegal immigrant who works for ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). A jittery Norton buries the body in a shallow grave and only confesses to the incident when two hunters come upon the corpse. Border patrol asks the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) to hush it up, which he does.
Pete, who had befriended Melquiades, is not happy with their stonewalling, and does what he can to exact his own kind of justice. He also is compelled to honor Estrada’s request to be buried in his native Mexico, a promise that entails an arduous journey there by horseback. An unwilling Norton is forced to make the journey with him, living close and personal with the rotting corpse of the man he has killed.
Distracting from the otherwise intriguing journey are the supporting characters, who are, for the most part, scripted with cynical contempt, demeaning stereotyping, or unrealistic fawning. The border patrol officers, though prompt to reprimand Norton for his abusive treatment of fleeing illegals, are just as quick to hush up the accidental shooting of Melquiades. They are at best complacent, their maxim being to “stay out of trouble,” but their cover up of the shooting smells of corruption as surely as the stinking corpse at its source.
One the other hand, the Mexican citizens are uniformly angelic, and certainly do not reflect the range of human nature one would expect. For instance, while in Mexico, Anglos Pete and Mike ride up to a group of men relaxing around a TV rigged up to the battery of their truck. They show no wariness of the strangers, and refuse payment for the food Pete requests, instead handing over fresh meat and the remains of their liquor bottle to the Americans. Similarly, a group of illegals poised to make their trek into America stops to help a snake bitten Mike. These guys have forked over $1000 a piece for his services, but no one even voices an objection when their leader leaves them to take Mike to a healer.
The Texans are not nearly so noble, filling their vapid lives with soap operas and sexual liaisons that are for the most part demeaning, mechanical, and extra-marital. Rachel (Melissa Leo) tolerates public groping by shallow Sheriff Belmont under the eyes of her husband, the short order cook, who voices his impotent rage by banging on the ready bell. She schedules regular trysts with the libidinous law enforcer more out of boredom than anything else, but their “passionate” encounters are as anticlimactic as their dreary lives. Instead of capping things off with a cigarette, French style, more often their post coitus talks lean to recommendations for Viagra.
On the other hand, characters Pete, Mike, and Melquiades (through flashbacks) are developed to greater satisfaction. Mike starts out as a fairly repugnant brute with a permanent scowl on his face. His physical relationship with his wife repulses us almost as much as it demeans her. However, the forced journey to Mexico, his Dante to Pete’s Virgil, changes him. And it is here, as a sort of morality play, that the film works best. Pete starts by making Mike dig up the putrid corpse and carry it to the small ranch shack that Melquiades called home. He makes Mike see Melquiades’ simple life, even experience it, in a ritual not unlike Holy Communion. Mike must sit down at Melquiades’ worn table and drink from his single tin cup.
He is forced to leave his starched border patrol uniform folded on the bed and don Melquiades’ work clothes, even as he dresses the dead man in his best attire. Mike is also deprived of his boots to prevent him running away, but the act has symbolic significance as well, as we often take off our shoes in holy places, and this trek to a burial ground becomes a sort of sacred pilgrimage.
Along the way Pete and Mike stop by a desolate farmhouse, where the solitary resident is a blind old man who wiles away the day listening to a Mexican radio station. Though he cannot understand the language, he loves its sounds. His only lifeline to the world is his son, who now has cancer and hasn’t been there in six months, yet he handles his desperate straights with stoic self-reliance and quiet dignity. (If the rest of the film lived up to the understated poignancy of this scene, we’d have had an instant classic.)
Many miles pass, the scorching sun, treacherous mountains, and blazing sands taking their toll. Perhaps it is fitting that Mike gets bitten by a rattlesnake, which is a slang term used for border patrol agents, the snake’s poison akin to the poison in Mike’s empty soul.
But when Mike gets up from his sick bed, the poison from the snake now gone, he is not the same man. It is Lazarus rising, a dead man brought back to life, who walks out to the circle where Pete and their Mexican hosts are shucking corn to ask, “Can I help?”
“Can I help?” and Are you okay?” are the two phrases that tell us, contrary to his wife’s pessimistic appraisal, that Mike is not beyond redemption. When he walks out to the group shucking the corn, he is rejoining the human race.
In his shiny patrol car wearing the starched border patrol uniform, Mike was apart, an outsider complacent but not comfortable in his own skin. Even to the rest of the border agents he was an outsider, the newcomer from Cincinnati, the one who took his job too seriously.
He had to be stripped of this identity, burned by the brutal sun, bitten and battered by his enemies before he could know his true self. Let us celebrate his new knowledge by roasting those fresh, sweet ears of corn.
Roasted Corn with Cilantro Butter
High heat and smoky flavors give grilled corn especially good flavor. A perfectly sweet vegetable companion to grilled beef or chicken.
Fresh corn on the cob (1-2 ears per person)
butter, melted (option: add fresh snipped cilantro)
salt and pepper to taste
- Pick ears corn that are fresh, young and tender and still in the husks. Remove all but the last 3 or 4 husks from each ear of corn.
- Place on the grill for about 4 minutes per side, depending on the heat. Turn several times while grilling to expose all sides of the corn to the heat.
- Corn should be firm with a nice golden , roasted color.
- The corn silk dries up in this method of cooking and is easy to remove after grilling.
- After cooking, pull back the husks and tie them back with a strip of husk to make a handle.
- Dip in melted butter and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- This makes a fun and pretty dish from the grill.
Recipe Source: Cooking with Good Morning, America