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Return to 2006 Films

Index of 2006

An Inconvenient Truth
Big Bad Swim
Brokeback Mountain
Cinderella Man
The Departed
The DaVinci Code
Eron: The Smartest
Guys in the Room

Good Night and
Good Luck

Half Nelson
History of Violence
Hotel Rwanda
Little Miss Sunshine
Journey from the Fall
March of the Penguins
Million Dollar Baby
Prairie Home Companion
Star Wars III:
Revenge of the Sith

Thank You for Smoking
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Sea Inside
United 93
War of the Worlds
Walk the Line
World Trade Center

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)

FILM SYNOPSIS: Ranch hand Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) attempts to see that his friend receives a proper burial in his Mexican hometown.

Status In theaters (limited)
Genre(s) Drama, Crime, Western Release
Running Time 121 minutes

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.
The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

I fear that by the time you read this review, this fine independent film will already have departed most theaters (if it ever got there at all). With its slow, deliberate pace, small budget, and lack of big stars, it won’t be around long. I’m sure that it’s only due to its association with Tommy Lee Jones, along with its critical acclaim, that it’s being released at all. That’s unfortunate, because it’s very timely, as it deals with the difficulty of life on the Texas/Mexico border, especially for undocumented persons. It’s also a great Lenten reflection on suffering and ultimate redemption. But all is not lost. It will probably be available on DVD soon, where I hope it finds an audience. It’s the kind of small film I like to recommend, imagining that many of you will never hear of it otherwise.

Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars as Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman near the border. He hires Melquiades, a Mexican looking for work. Soon the two become friends. Melquiades asks Pete to promise that, should anything happen to him, Pete will see to it that his body is returned to his native town in Mexico for burial.

In the meantime, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a border patrol officer on a new assignment, moves into town with his young wife, Lou Ann. On patrol, Mike hears gunshots. Thinking he is being targeted, he shoots back, killing Melquiades. Mike then realizes that Melquiades was not aiming at him, but at a coyote. Mike leaves the scene without reporting the incident.

Melquiades is unceremoniously buried near the town. Pete investigates the shooting of his friend, since neither the sheriff nor border patrol demonstrate any interest. When Pete learns that Mike killed Melquiades, Pete kidnaps Mike and forces him to unearth the body of Melquiades. Then Pete forces Mike to accompany him on the journey to honor Melquiades’ request to be buried at his home across the border.

Jones takes us along this slow paced, meandering journey home. Pete and Mike meet some interesting characters along the way, including an elderly blind man living alone in the desert. In a poignant scene, he begs Pete to kill him, saying that he would not offend God by taking his own life. At one point Mike escapes, only to be bitten by a snake. Pete finds Mike and takes him to town, where they are led to a woman, skilled in herbal medicine, who restores him to health. Ironically, she recognizes Mike as the border patrol officer who hit her and turned her back, as she and her companions tried to cross the border, earlier in the film.

For Pete this is a journey to fulfill his promise to a friend. For Mike, it becomes a journey toward redemption for the sins he has committed, not only against Melquiades, but also the woman, and so many others along the border.

Three Burials is the kind of movie that demands patience and attention. Like a good novel, Jones is in no hurry to tell his story. Jones finds the humanity in each character, even the insignificant. Like Melquiades, every character is treated with respect. Even though every character is flawed, none is beyond redemption. No matter whether they live north or south of the border, the characters share a common humanity. In this stark, barren landscape, the injustice and violence touch everyone.

Jones also demonstrates a feel for the boredom of life in an isolated small town. The diner is the center of the town, where people go to eat, talk, and deal with their boredom and isolation. Sexual encounters are desperate attempts to connect with one another in the midst of the desolation of life on the border.

At the risk of making the film sound unbearably depressing, it has an offbeat sense of humor. Jones doesn’t take the characters or situation so seriously that he’s beyond seeing the humor in it. For example, the macabre humor in two men traveling for days in the hot sun with a corpse comes across throughout the film.

Thanks to Tommy Lee Jones for taking us on a memorable journey across the border. At a time of much political controversy over “the immigration problem,” Jones plops us in the center of things. We see the brutality and injustice, as well as the common humanity.

The Three Burials is a great film to see during Lent, if possible. Like any journey, it is at times frightening, boring, and confusing. There’s danger, humor, and lots of interesting folks along the way. But it ends in redemption in a way that will certainly surprise and move you. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a journey you’ll be glad you took.

Tom Condon, OP

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