5 June 2009

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (Dir. Tommy Lee Jones, 2005, US) - 'I don't want to be buried on this side among all the billboards...

Tommy Lee Jones kidnaps the arrogant border patrol officer played by Barry Pepper.

The last few years has seen the emergence of a remarkable cycle of contemporary westerns. Alongside Andrew Dominik’s lyrical take on the legend of Jesse James and The Coens exemplary return to the genre stands the somewhat overlooked directorial debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (1995) is an affecting study of guilt, friendship and race that features a moving performance from Tommy Lee Jones as Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman who forces a ignorant border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) to carry back the dead body of his friend and illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada to Mexico so that he can be buried in his homeland. The screenplay is by Mexican scriptwriter, Guillermo Arraiga, who with his multi narrative and sociologically accentuated scripts for Amorres Perros, 28 Grams and Babel, has proven himself to be one of the strongest and most radical scriptwriters working anywhere in the world today. Arraiga’s script returns to a familiar motif, that of death and similarly like much of his previous work, uses multiple perspectives to unveil the subjectivity of an event. Expertly shot by ace cinematographer Chris Menges, the handsome but brutal landscapes of Texas serve as an iconic reminder of the consequences men like Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) must face for their indifferent actions. The biblical overtures of a narrative in which the guilty are forced to atone for their sins through the arduous physical task of carrying the dead works magnificently to create a hybrid between the western, road movie and melodrama. Alongside his performances in both 'The Valley of Elah' and 'No Country for Old Men', this is perhaps Tommy Lee Jones most complex, emotive and genuinely truthful performance. As for Melquiades, his death and status as a Mexican immigrant poses a striking range of questions regarding prejudices and attitudes harboured by those who see the Texas/Mexican border as something definitive and absolute. With time, I think this may just become one of the great westerns of the contemporary era.

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