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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada / Los tres entierros de Melquiades Estrada

Posted by keith1942 on January 9, 2010

The Opening sequence - in the Wilderness

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones from a script by Guillermo Arriaga.

This film is broadly a western. This is the genre that, more than any other, appears to offer mythic tales for the USA. The film’s story crosses that fertile real and imagined territory at the edge of the USA – the border. The border and the country to which is the gateway, Mexico, have been a rich motif in US film, especially in the Hollywood western.  The shape of the border was the result of aggressive colonialism by the USA. The saga of The Alamo is well known. The C19th mercenary William Walker, who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s and set up a dictatorship there, had already led mercenaries into Mexico. The USA was aided [and ‘justified’] in such interventions by the fact that Mexico was still occupied by European colonialists. The policies of ‘Manifesto Destiny’ required their expulsion.

The USA did later support the indigenous struggle for independence. One of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa, was actually put on the payroll of the Mutual Film Corporation and featured in War in Mexico [1913]. Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata (USA 1952) made the Mexican revolutionary a hero, though like the earlier Viva Villa [USA 1934] it showed little respect for the actual history. Offering support to revolutionaries was frequent plot device in both westerns and spaghetti westerns. The Wild Bunch [1969] is a good example of the former, whilst A Fistful of Dynamite [Per un Pugno di Dollari, 1964] offers a latter example.  More frequently Mexican characters were represented less positively, signified by the use of the term ‘greaser’, which gradually disappeared after protests from the Mexican government. But the stereotypes live on, as in The Mexican [2001], “ a stage for thieves and hitmen, desert scum as it were.” {Jim Kitses in Sight & Sound April 2006: the issue contains both a review and an extended article on the film]. And a contemporary term that features in this film is ‘wetback’, referencing their crossing of the Rio Grande to reach the USA.

Typically in Hollywood films Mexico was a place of escape from the law; it was still providing refuge in The Shawshank Redemption [1994].  Mexico was also a refuge for the Apache Indians, leading to more aggressive crossings by the US military, as in Major Dundee [1964]. But it was also a place that Yankees could exploit. In the classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] it is an El Dorado for venal Yankee gold prospectors.

Three Burials displays a number of familiar motifs found in earlier films about Mexico and the Border. The basic plot line follows Texan Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) as he takes the body of his friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo) home for burial in Jiminez, Mexico. Pete forces US border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who shot Melquiades, along to dig the grave. Hence Melquiades body is buried and re-buried three times, finally at home in his native village, Jiminez [or at least what Pete decides is Jiminez].

Geographically the journey taken by the three men is very similar to that followed in a The River’s Edge [USA 1956], in which bank robber Ray Milland forces Border guide Anthony Quinn and his wife Debra Paget to lead him across the border region. The landscape of this film [in CinemaScope] is remarkably similar to that in Three Burials.

The dead Melquiades is an important if macabre member of the trio, and often reminiscent of the part-cadaver carried by Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia [USA / Mexico 1974]. As in many border movies the trio are pursued by the law, which was also the fate of Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave [USA 1962]. Douglas’ cowboy is chased on foot and by helicopter just like Pete and his companions. Whilst Douglas is not crossing the border, his flight is occasioned by a friend involved in smuggling illegal migrant across the Mexican border.


Pete and the dead Melquiades

However, Tommy Lee Jones’ film differs in one important respect from most of the earlier films treating Mexico and its border. This is the centrality of the Mexican character, symbolised by the joint titles in the opening credits, in both English and Spanish. This is reinforced by the use of Spanish language for much of the dialogue, translated in sub-titles, rather than the more conventional usage of having every character speak English.

Melquiades is central to the narrative as the focus of the journey, even though he is dead. He also appears alive in the numerous flashbacks set before the shooting. One particular plot device reinforces the power of the character. In a flashback Melquiades has a sexual encounter with Mike Norton’s wife Lou Ann (January Jones). He is clearly able to offer her the sexual pleasure that is entirely absent from her relationship with her husband. In this story sexual potency lies with the Mexican. This is a subversive element that recalls another border movie, John Sayles’ Lone Star [USA 1995]. The latter film also features the disinternment of a coprse that brings a series of contradictions into the light. It also subverts the US norms with a conscious crossing of the border, and a crossing of sexual taboos in its closure.  In Three Burials the reversal of the Hollywood norm is not total. Pete Perkins is still the central character and it is interesting to speculate what type of story would emerge if Melquiades were to carry the body of his dead friend Pete back to the USA for burial?

Melquiades and Lu Ann - Pete and Rachel

The Borderlands invoke one of the archetypes of the western, the opposition between the garden and the wilderness. The local town has only limited elements of the garden. The impermanent nature of the township civilisation is reinforced by the Norton’s home, a trailer house. Notably the central characters lack the stability of a home. Pete lives alone in a cabin on the ranch where he works. The key law officer in the story is the Sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) who resists Pete’s efforts to have a serious investigation into Melquiades’ death. If the sheriff has a home it offers little solace, which he finds to a degree with Rachel (Melissa Leo, the married waitress at the diner) in motel rooms. Melquiades, who appears out of wilderness in a flashback, tells Pete he has a home, Jiminez. But we are unsure if we ever see this hamlet, which may be imagined or invented by Pete.

The film plunges the audience straight into the wilderness. The plot commences with the discovery of Melquiades body by two hunters out in the wild lands. The bulk of the plot concerns the crossing of this wilderness by Pete, Mike and Melquiades. It is also partially crossed by the pursuing sheriff and US Border Patrol: and in the opposite direction by several groups of Mexicans attempting to enter the USA. This sense of a lost and wild territory is emphasised by the blind man that Pete and his group encounter. Living alone, he is seemingly forgotten or abandoned by his only relation, his son. He asks Pete to kill him and end his isolation. Despite Pete’s refusal he later bluffs the border police about the passage pass of the trio.

Pete’s journey with the corpse of his friend Melquiades seems to be a macabre variant on one of the enduring myths of US art and culture. Leslie A. Fiedler, writing about the archetypal characters in the James Fenimore Cooper novels, comments: “two lonely men, one dark-skinned, one white, bend together over a carefully guarded fire in the virgin heart of the American wilderness: they have forsaken all others for the sake of the austere, almost inarticulate, but unquestioned love which binds them to each other and to the world of nature which they have preferred to civilisation. (Love and Death in the American Novel, Jonathan Cape, 1957: justly describe d by a critic as ‘One of the great, essential books on the American imagination’). In the film, Pete has to use the fire to burn away the ants that are consuming his friend’s cadaver. Pete appears to flee civilisation for an imaginary ‘paradise’. Jiminez. In another ironic twist the captive dragged into the wilderness is not a helpless female, but a potent male, used to firing his gun. Earlier in the film we see Mike is masturbating over a porn magazine and then picks up his gun and mistakenly shoot Melquiades.

Family and gender relations are a central focus for the film. The relationship of Pete and Melquiades, shown in flashback, resembles that of father and son. This is a positive relationship in contrast to other filial relations. The blind man’s son has failed to visit him for six months. Mike Norton and the Sheriff  (Dwight Yoakam) are both childless, and seem likely to remain so. At the finale Pete sends Mike home on the horse originally given to him by Melquiades, a hint of a substitute filial relation.

Whilst the women are subordinate in plot terms, their characters are important to the film.  Rachel is a key support for both Pete and the Sheriff. And there is an unspoken bond between pursuer and pursued which probably stems from this relationship. Lou Ann finally leaves Mike, apparently returning to her home. Whilst they seem more passive than the men do they do appear to have a more realistic view of life. They are committed to civilisation. It is the men who go wandering off into the wilderness.

One of the challenges of the film is the chronology of the plot: a characteristic of the script work of Giullermo Arriaga. The film opens with the discovery of Melquiades’ body, and then fills in the preceding events. For the first hour the film cuts between different periods in the story, from the first meeting of Pete and Melquiades, through his death and the first and second burials. So these events are shown out of sequence and have to be re-ordered by the viewer. . The point at which the plot settles into a linear narrative is at the point when Rachel visits Pete to tell him who actually shot Melquiades. This is signalled by the title, The Journey / El Viaje [not quite halfway through the film], in which Pete drags Mike and the dead Melquiades along on his odyssey. Thus the early part of the film places the audience in the same situation as Pete: trying to puzzle out events.

Mike's final act of contrition

The ending of the film is suitably ambiguous. Pete sends Mike home: though the viewers know this is, at most, an empty trailer. Lou Ann has gone. . Pete himself rides off, deeper into Mexico? Whilst Rachel, having rejected Pete’s invitation to join him in Mexico, remains with her older husband and occasional brief assignations with the Sheriff in motel rooms. One possible reading is the inability of US culture to subdue the wilderness or to expunge the ‘dark-skinned; people.

This is developed from an article originally printed in In The Picture: and informed by discussion with students.

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