I wouldn’t put Tommy Lee Jones among my absolute favorite actors, but I’d rank him pretty high. I consistently enjoy his work.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was Jones’s theatrical directing debut (the second movie he directed counting an earlier made-for-TV movie). He also plays the lead as a rancher. The movie is set in a small town in Texas, near the Mexican border.
The movie is primarily in English, but here and there characters speak Spanish to each other, and those lines are accompanied by subtitles (usually—some of the obvious stuff and some of maybe what they consider inconsequential incidental dialogue isn’t translated).
The early parts of the movie—I think about the first half hour—skip around chronologically. I’m sure I failed to pick up some of the available details, but it’s not hopelessly obscure. I didn’t have much trouble getting the gist of what was going on, though that may have been in part because I read about the movie before watching it; it’s possible if I had come to the movie completely cold I would have been more lost. It has a more conventional structure from that point on though, and so becomes easier to follow.
Melguiades Estrada is one of the illegal aliens Jones hires to work with him on his ranch. They soon become good friends. This is conveyed in very few total minutes of screen time, so you only get a vague sense of their relationship—just that they are close.
They seem to have little beyond each other. No mention is made of any past or present family of Jones, and he’s not shown socializing with his other workers or any other friends. About his only other relationship we’re shown is an affair he’s having with a local married waitress.
Estrada arrives knowing no one in the area, and he seems to make no connections other than Jones. Jones brings him along one time to meet the waitress and another girl for sex, which Estrada seems to enjoy at least modestly, but he’s quite shy and uncertain what to do, pretty much letting the girl take the lead.
Though he has little in the way of connections locally, he does speak fondly of his past, telling Jones of the wife and kids he left five years earlier when economic hardship drove him to the United States, and of the beautiful little town he is from in the Mexican countryside not far from the border.
In fact, this sets up a main plot point, as he emotionally asks Jones to promise him—which Jones eventually does—that if he should die here in the United States Jones will make sure he gets buried back in his hometown of Jimenez.
Meanwhile, in parallel scenes early in the movie we get to know another of the main characters, Mike Norton. Norton has just arrived in town from Cincinnati with his young hot wife Lou Ann to join the border patrol.
Things do not go well for them. Norton is a little too zealous at his job—roughing up Mexicans they catch crossing the border—and is at risk of getting in trouble with his superiors. Lou Ann is bored to death stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and for lack of alternatives ends up hanging out at the nearby diner where she befriends the waitress Jones is cheating with, and they eventually start cheating with guys together. (There are so few people around, and thus so few possible combinations, that you get the sense that everyone is sleeping with everyone. The sheriff, for example, is also banging this same waitress.) Norton and his wife are increasingly on edge with each other.
In a way they come across as typical white trash losers—with all the violence and cheating and bickering and such, not to mention Norton’s penchant for sitting like a slob in front of the TV while clipping his toenails onto the carpet—but there’s a hint that there was at least the potential for them to be something more. Lou Ann mentions in passing to the waitress that in Cincinnati, they were among the popular, elite kids in high school, in other words the type that takes it for granted that they are special and have a bright future ahead of them.
The stories come together when Norton inadvertently shoots and kills Estrada while out on patrol. It’s more a panicky, trigger-happy thing than a malicious or violence-loving thing, but Estrada is equally dead either way.
Norton covers it up as best he can and keeps his mouth shut, but eventually the body is discovered, and Jones if no one else takes an interest in the case. The sheriff is disinclined to make much of an effort to investigate the death of just another wetback, and he becomes even more disinclined when the border patrol figures out the killer was one of their own and asks him as a law enforcement courtesy not to pursue the case.
But Jones stays on it, and soon he figures out Norton was responsible for the death of his friend. He kidnaps Norton at gunpoint and forces him to accompany him to Mexico with Estrada’s dead body, as he intends to fulfill his promise to bury the body in Jimenez, and to teach Norton a lesson.
The bulk of the film then consists of their journey together into Mexico, Jones grim and purposeful, Norton angry and wanting to escape. They have some interesting encounters with folks along the way.
Then when they reach what Jones thinks is their destination—it’s hard to say for sure, as he has only an old photo of Estrada’s wife and kids and a crudely drawn map to go on—things turn out to seemingly be entirely different from what Estrada had told him.
But while it’s pretty clear what Estrada told him is not true in at least some important respects, what’s not clear is what is true. The movie leaves it as very much a mystery.
I was intrigued enough to do considerable reading online after seeing the movie—mostly posting forums where people speculated about the ending. Had Estrada been lying? Had he been fantasizing? Had he mostly been telling the truth but somehow the people in Mexico were lying to Jones? Was Jones fantasizing? Was he crazy? Had he imagined that conversation with Estrada about burying him in Mexico?
Adding to the possibility that at least some elements of the story were supposed to be someone or other’s fantasy is the fact that—as I discovered from these online discussions—if you freeze the movie the brief times the photo of Estrada’s wife and kids is shown, you’ll see it’s not in fact the same photo each time. So leaving aside the possibility that the photo itself is magically changing, we have to think that Jones, or somebody, is perceiving the photo differently at different times, and thus that other things in the movie might be just his or someone’s imagination.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has an interesting feel to it, good atmospherics out in the middle of nowhere. The acting is consistently good. There are many interesting themes, including cross-cultural friendship, how hot-headed people behave when given authority and a gun, the guilt and other emotions one experiences when forced to confront a horrific act one has committed, seeing or not seeing the “Other” as fully human, how far one will go to keep a promise to a friend, and possibly something having to do with mental illness or losing track of what is reality and what is fantasy.
There’s also the whole issue of illegal immigration and what to do about it. The border patrol agents on the front lines are quite diligent about trying to do their job and catch people trying to sneak into the country, but on the other hand, as one of them says after they confront a group of border crossers and are only able to nab some of them while others scuttle away, “Well at least now there will be people to pick the strawberries this year.”
In other words, these people are coming for a reason, because there’s a demand for them and what they do. So if the immigration laws ever were enforced even more tightly and few if any such people made it into the country illegally, would that even be a good thing?
The ending of the movie confused me, but I don’t know that that’s all bad—at least it’s something more to think about and speculate about. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is certainly in the top half of movies I’ve seen, so, in my opinion at least, it’s clearly worth checking out.