Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Europa Corp, 2005)

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Cormac McCarthy, Camus, Peckinpah: Tommy Lee Jones
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You can argue whether this very fine film is a Western. Purists would reject it because of its modern setting but it’s a Western in the sense that a tough hombre takes the law into his own hands, rides across the Rio Grande and does what a man’s gotta do.

 

It’s the second time that Tommy Lee Jones has made the promise to bury a dead friend far away. He really needs to stop doing that. Last time it was Robert Duvall. This time it’s Julio Cedillo, the Melquiades of the title.
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Fine photography from Chris Menges and direction from TL Jones
 
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The story is not told in a linear way and is full of flashbacks: you have to piece the narrative together. That reflects perhaps the confusion of the participants. But this is not irritating. Certainly the film repays a second viewing. The screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga, who had done Powder Keg and 21 Grams) is outstandingly good.

 

Southern Texas and northern Mexico are shown to be the same culture with an international border slashed artificially across it, with death and pain as a result. Perhaps we are shown more decency south of the border. We are certainly shown a spiritually arid life north of it. The life of the women in particular, Lou Ann (January Jones, excellent) and Rachel (Melissa Leo, also very good indeed) is mind-numbingly boring and empty.

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 Mind-numbingly boring and empty

 

 

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It’s almost a male love story with nothing gay about it. The friendship between Pete (Tommy Lee Jones) and Melquiades (Mel, as TLJ calls him) is touching and deep. Key themes are friendship and alienation. It is said that TLJ gave the cast Albert Camus’s l’étranger to read.

 

Barry Pepper is outstanding as Mike Norton, the oafish, trailer-park rookie border patrolman who is just an overgrown adolescent but who becomes a man and comes, bizarrely, to care for his captor. At the end that regard is reciprocated. Mike believes that Pete, the sensitive sadist, will kill him and we, the viewers, believe that too. Yet something happens between the two.
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 It’s a Western alright

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The landscape is barren and beautiful and beautifully photographed by Chris Menges. The Marco Beltrami music is atmospheric and appropriate. It’s not a ‘Western’ score in any traditional sense (even if he did study under Morricone). The country/pop music often played is just what people would listen to but the songs also try to say something in different scenes.

 

One of them is sung by Dwight Yoakam, probably my favorite country singer, who has matured into an excellent actor. He is the unsympathetic, overweight Sheriff Belmont, who is too lazy and prejudiced to care much who shot Melquiades, and if it was a cop he’d rather cover it up. Rachel is his motel-bedroom mistress, not because she loves the slob but out of sheer boredom.
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 Yoakam: excellent

 

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Tommy Lee Jones directed, produced and starred in the movie. Jones’s own performance is superb. TLJ developed a type of Western character, a Texan tough as old boots, stoic, not suffering fools gladly, keeping people at arm’s length, knowing, taciturn but once committed, totally engaged. Now add a pinch of world-weariness. There you have his Woodrow McCall in Lonesome Dove, his Samuel Jones in The Missing, his Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men, his George Briggs in The Homesman. Mr Jones is a Texan born and bred, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, majoring in English. His Westerns are subtle, penetrating, atmospheric and elegiac.
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Alienation

 

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So, great acting, writing, photography, music – a first class film which justifiably won the Best Male Actor and Best Screenplay awards in Cannes.

 

Western male codes of honor, harsh terrain, violence, a hint of madness: just a tinge of Alfredo Garcia. This is the kind of film Sam Peckinpah might have made had he lived on and been reading Cormac McCarthy – and Camus, of course.

 

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10 Responses

  1. Excellent review of one of my favorites. I have viewed the film three times and enjoyed it each time. After watching it the first time, I turned right around and watched it again because now that I knew what happened I could look for clues that I might have missed in the first viewing.

    I'm thankful that Tommy Lee is making films. Without him the Western (at least good Westerns) might have become extinct.

    I have heard that he has plans to film McCarthy's "Blood Meridian." I hope so.

  2. Thanks!
    Yes, you definitely need to see it a few times to appreciate it fully.
    Blood Meridian would be an enormous challenge to film but I can't think of anyone better than TLJ to do it.
    Jeff

  3. Loved it when I first saw it and, because it was an indie with limited theatrical release and not well known, I’ve been touting it to anyone who loves Westerns, a different kind of adventure or just anyone who would listen. And speaking of musicians-turned-actors (like Yoakum, who’s great here), how about a shoutout for Levon Helm (formerly a member of The Band). His cameo as a blind hermit with a special kind of problem is marvelous! Helm was also great in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER as Sissy Spacek’s Dad.

    1. And Helm was an excellent narrator and host too. Seek out the documentary he narrated and hosted on Highway 61 for PBS in 1996. It is available on the internet and is just wonderful Americana covering the route of the road from Memphis to New Orleans. He was a great talent.

      1. I’ll have to check that out. Helm was the drummer and contributed vocals when he was with The Band and of course appeared in Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ which I regard as one of the greatest “rockumentaries” of all time.

        1. Yes, I think ‘The Night they drove old Dixie Down’ sung by Helm is one of the greatest songs ever written (by Robbie Robertson) about the American Civil War.

      1. Yes, he’s also good in ‘The Right Stuff’ and again with Tommy Lee Jones in ‘In the electric mist with confederate dead’ from the James Lee Burke novel as General John Bell Hood.

        1. Glad you mention Bertrand Tavernier’s excellent film (its superb cast included John Goodman and Ned Beatty, Peter Sarsgaard, Mary Steenburgen, Kelly Macdonald, John Sayles (yes, the texan film director !) And Buddy Guy for his acting debut as well) even if the version released out if the US is far much better (aka International director’s cut…)
          SEE
          https://somecamerunning.typepad.com/some_came_running/2021/03/when-it-was-announced-a-few-years-back-that-the-french-director-bertrand-tavernier-would-be-returning-to-english-language-fil.html

          1. I would very much like to see the longer version. Really like the film even in the short version. Should have kept the long title of the novel so evocative.

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