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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

A tale of revenge and redemption is laid bare in the deserts of the Texas/Mexican border. New border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) accidentally kills an illegal immigrant, quickly buries the body and hopes no one discovers his mistake. When the body is found, the police ask local ranch-hand Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), to identify it. Pete was a good friend of the deceased and is frustrated when the police refuse to arrest Mike, as they view his dead friend as yet ‘another illegal’. Taking matters into his own hands, Pete captures Mike and is determined to re-bury the body according to a promise he made. The line between morality and revenge become blurred, with the desert trek showing how thin that line can be.
Actor/Director Tommy Lee Jones explores the notion of how promises can be a person’s undoing. Pete’s obsession to ‘do the right thing’ makes him nearly as bad as his captive. Whilst this isn’t a western in the traditional sense, it does have many themes that made that genre so popular. Friendship, loyalty and revenge all play a part in creating the mood of the film, with each characters motives not seeming all they appear to be.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a very understated performance, making his calm presence all the more chilling as he silently torments Mike through the desert sand-dunes. Jones uses his unique facial features to display the pain and anger that Pete feels to good effect. The scenes where Pete cares for his dead friends body are quite touching and reveal the deep bond that existed between them. Barry Pepper is excellent as Mike, a character who is unlikeable in the beginning, who treated the illegal immigrants like dirt. When the tables are turned on him, the audience soon sees the man that he is underneath the hard surface that he has created. The rest of the cast includes Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, all of whom give solid support as characters caught in the crossfire of Pete’s personal vendetta.
This film is a very slow burning tale which builds to a psychological crescendo that is unexpected for both protagonists. The screenplay written by ‘21 Grams’ writer Guillermo Arriago, is consistently gripping, with twists that bring new meaning to previous scenes. Jones uses the widescreen cinematography to great effect, capturing the starkness of the desert, and filling every frame with the vast open landscape. These scenes work especially well when Jones’s character uses the harshness of the desert as a tool to further torture Mike.
This is a very complex character study of the racial divide that still exists, with the invisible border being a barrier to two countries co-existing peacefully. The acting is uniformly excellent, building upon a script that comes alive with each new scene. Tommy Lee Jones assured directing masks the fact that this is his first time behind the lens, making for an impressive debut. This is a tough gritty journey that rewards its audience with genuine humanity and spirit.
Rating out of 10: 8

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