In his directorial debut, Tommy Lee Jones releases double dynamite in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” in which he also stars. It’s a deeply layered and wickedly funny fantasy fable about justice and redemption.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, the foreman of a cattle ranch. We already know that one of his ranch hands has been murdered by a border agent, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), so when we see Pete interviewing a young man in Spanish, we think it’s a replacement for Estrada. We’re really watching a flashback of Pete hiring Estrada for the first time. The movie will play with our head, moving back and forth in time so we can follow the story. Pete seeks justice from the county sheriff (Dwight Yoakam). But what are the chances that the local government will indict a federal officer over an undocumented Mexican murdered while grazing goats in the south Texas desert? Mike is an overzealous soldier who has moved to Texas with his wife. We see him ostracized by his superiors for being brutal to people making their journey across a brutal desert just so they can toil at a minimum wage job to support family back home.
Pete kidnaps Mike and makes him dig up Estrada’s body. They’re trying to elude the federal agents as they go south across the border into Mexico, so Estrada can be buried in his tiny villita in the Sierra Madre. They are on horseback, and a donkey is carrying Estrada. Pete carries a picture of the wife and children Estrada left behind, and a sliver of paper with a map he had drawn.
Will Pete find the village? Why won’t Pete do any burying or unburying of his friend? Will they elude the posse?
Jones’ movie is packed so tight with political issues that the questions seem secondary. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is possessed — it’s possessed in the way Robert Duval was possessed when he directed and starred in “The Apostle.”
Jones weighs in deep on the immigration question. He speaks Spanish in the film, and then engages in at least two felonies when he beats and kidnaps Mike.
(In Tucson, Ariz., Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, both 23-year-olds, are charged with federal felonies, and face 15 years in prison, for leaving water in the desert so workers don’t die crossing it.)
But most of all, Jones recognizes the humanity of Estrada. Why would you go on a deadly 2,000-mile trip if you can make a living where you’re from? Given the hollow and dangerously right-wing debate in Washington right now, if Jones were Congressman Jones it seems like he’d be making a profound contribution on the issue.
Rewind almost 60 years and tell me if you can see Humphrey Bogart with the horses, mules and a sliver of paper, looking for and being driven mad in search of gold — from the film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
Jones transforms that gold, and declares his gold to be human solidarity. And right there, clear as day, we see the facts — first we robbed the wealth of Mexico and Central America, then we punish the people forced to leave because of the robbery. When “Congressman Jones” runs again, don’t forget it’s your civic duty to “vote early and often.”
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
121 minutes, Rated R