Tommy Lee Jones finds black humor among corpses in Three Burials

By Matt Johnston

The killing of Melquiades Estrada is technically an accident, but one careless and unnecessary enough to make the blood run cold. Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a U.S. Border Patrol employee, is busy masturbating when he hears gunfire. He shoots back only to realize that the original fire was directed at a coyote. Now Estrada is dead, the innocent bystander in an imagined battle. Norton leaves him to rot behind a bush in the desert. Given the title of Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, though, we know that Estrada’s body has not found its final resting place just yet.

This is a daring film, unforgiving and unapologetic in its bleak, slow style. It contains a great deal of violence, some even played for humor, but it is a serious departure from Jones’s usual fare. With an entry this strong, Jones ought not return to Hollywood anytime soon, certainly not for the likes of Man of the House or, Lord help us, Men in Black 2. He is just fine making films that think new thoughts and provide us with experiences we have never had before.

Guillermo Arriaga, the screenwriter, is also up to the challenge. He wrote 21 Grams and Amores Perros, both films that demanded our attention. Three Burials surpasses them with its willingness to walk without a safety net. It doesn’t rely on tricky editing to garner an emotional reaction. The story of Estrada is still not told in a strictly linear fashion, but its impact comes from plain, unblinking observation rather than jolting plot twists.

The setting is a small border town in Texas. It is, by the looks of it, the most boring place on the face of the earth. The mall in Odessa is the closest excitement. The local waitress, Rachel, played with passive intensity by Melissa Leo, sleeps around out of pure boredom as much as anything else. She’s no looker. That she is the queen bee says something about the local population. Mike Norton and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones, who is a looker) come into town and fit right in. He seems decently content to flip through pornography while at work; she is not content with their mechanical sex or his proposal that she entertain herself all day everyday by playing Nintendo, but finds both a friend and a partner in infidelity in Rachel.

These people are not the great intellectuals of the world, but they survive somehow in the face of unbelievable isolation. There is nothing to do. There is no one to talk to. Lou Ann’s neighbors spend their days in their yards at the trailer park, dogs and ill-fitting bikinis their only companions. And, though their shared border with Mexico may be the talk of national news, these citizens never seem aware of any issues outside of their immediate lives. When Norton gratuitously beats two Mexicans attempting to cross the border illegally, he seems truly oblivious to any red flags this might raise. And, alone in a nearly anarchic area, he barely gets a slap on the wrist. Everything about this setting reinforces despair and hopelessness. Who on earth would discipline him? Who would care?

But in killing Melquiades Estrada, Norton makes a mistake. His superiors still don’t really seem to care—they make excuses about drug wars causing a lot of violence. But Pete Perkins, played by Jones, does care. Like Rachel, Perkins may be acting out of boredom. He believes that he has a deep love for Estrada and that he is responsible for enforcing some sort of justice. But there is precious little evidence to suggest that he actually knew Estrada well, that they were totally honest with one another, or that in another setting either would have cared to know the other. Here, though, Estrada is the closest thing to a friend that Perkins has, and so he begins a journey to give Estrada a proper burial, and, in the process, give a kidnapped Norton his comeuppance. They disappear off into the desert on horseback.

It is to his credit that Arriaga finds humor in this situation. Three Burials is a satire as well as a drama. Estrada’s body becomes a character in the story and, as Faulkner demonstrated in As I Lay Dying, a decomposing corpse can be quite a nuanced character. Perkins takes obsessive care of the body in scenes of increasing ridiculousness. Poor Mike Norton also draws laughs as he incompetently tries to strongman his way out of being a hostage, only to find that muscles are of little use against hot sand and rattlesnakes.

The humor, like the rest of the film, is deeply depressing. Rarely has a cast of characters so humorously pathetic and terrifyingly familiar been assembled. These are people who are at once believable and foreign, lost in the world of their own self-interest. Even those who are basically likeable are fighting a futile fight against an uncompromising world that cares little about whether each lives or dies. Herein lies the real genius of the film. Westerns have always involved the grandeur of the landscape enveloping the characters’ petty trials, but Three Burials knows about the dull, gray lives that exist on days without anything so exciting as a trial. Perkins’s reliance on the ritual of burial—the hallmark of humanity since early days—seems sillier the farther he travels. Estrada is, after all, dead. And even as we grow attached to the corpse, we recognize that, were it not for this film, no one would ever hear or care about the fate of Estrada’s corpse, much less anyone else in this desolate world.