A Mexican ranch hand, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), is casually shot dead in Texas. His friend and fellow cowboy Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) determines to do the right thing and return his body to his family. It is, however, the local authorities who are complicit in the murder, and they try to block Pete’s attempts to see justice done on behalf of his co-worker and best friend. Tommy Lee Jones’s beautifully directed and timely film is a moral parable of the ways that friendship and respect ignore borders, and of the ways in which those with power constantly work to frustrate these impulses.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga, Jones’s film uses the Mexican border, and those living and working on both sides of it, to study the ways that racism and power grate against decent, humane values.
The local sheriff, played by country singer Dwight Yoakam makes it clear that he is unconcerned about the fate of Melquiades, an illegal “wetback” who thus deserves a quick burial and an end to the matter. Barry Pepper plays a cold, emotionless border guard with a fondness for punishing those whose crime is to dare to make the journey north in search of a better life. This same brutishness is visited upon his lonely wife (Melissa Leo), who is shown lost in trips to the diner and TV soaps.
Jones’s depiction of the low level state functionaries, prejudiced and a bit dim, is extremely effective – they work to a narrow set of rules, the continuation of which necessitates that they do not question them. January Jones is terrific as Lou Ann, who runs the local eatery and is the character the others revolve around.
Frustrated by both the cover-up and the sheriff’s indifference to Melquiades’s fate, Perkins sets out to deliver the justice himself, steals the body, and goes about returning his friend to Mexico. Perkins is like a character from an older, more noble, Western movie. This is an extremely effective device used by Jones to comment upon where the US is today in contrast to the myths it tells itself about its moral, civilising authority. The story unfolds steadily, with sharp, measured use of flashback and weaved plotting which shows the ways that, despite borders, the lives of all of the principles are interlinked, mutually reliant and shifting.
The film charts Perkins’s horseback journey with his grim cargo, against some stunningly shot Texas scenery. On his mission Perkins encounters a variety of folks, forgotten poor Americans living on the margins, other Mexican cowboys, and the locals smuggling themselves into the US.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a clear admonition to those who visit violence and racism in the world. The misdeeds that the powerful visit upon those weaker than them have to be accounted for. There can be no “moving on” or “closure” without judgment and retribution. It’s a fitting warning to the Texan in the White House.
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