Thursday, June 15, 2006

Your fugitive's name is Melquiades Estrada

Knowing full well that my husband expects me to see the craptacular Nacho Libre with him this weekend, a few days ago I made him rent the indie western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Both movies are at least partially set in Mexico, and that appears to be where the similarities end. Nacho Libre is the tale of a "Mexican" who joins the local wrestling circuit to raise money for a monastery, and Three Burials is a story of alienation, friendship, and redemption. Guess which one I will be recommending?

Set in Texas ranch country, Three Burials is centered around the death of Melquiades Estrada, a Mexican (played by an actual Mexican-American) ranch hand who befriends Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). Before he died, Melquiades conveniently told Pete that he wants to be buried in his hometown of Jimenez, Mexico. He also gave Pete Durable Power of Attorney and made him the beneficiary of his Living Trust--not really, but it's just as likely as the subject of your funeral preferences coming up in the course of conversation. Since the movie rocks, though, this detail can be overlooked. After a few quick flashbacks, Melquiades is killed by a disgruntled Border Patrolman (Barry Pepper), and Pete takes it upon himself to punish the guilty man and honor his promise in one fell swoop.

The punishment itself is extremely fitting. Pete kidnaps the Border Patrolman, whose name is Mike, and makes him travel into Mexico on horseback with the corpse of Melquiades, for the purpose of burying him in his hometown. Given Mike's violent tendencies toward illegal immigrants, this destination is an appropriate site for his redemption. Both men experience a great deal on this journey, and the story reaches a simple, unexpected conclusion.

The quiet beauty of the film is emphasized by the breathtaking landscape in several scenes. According to, Tommy Lee Jones used his own ranch property for some of the shots. There is a desert scene that is particularly moving, because it reminds you of how isolated the characters are, both physically and psychologically.

The cast is equally impressive. Tommy Lee Jones once again displays the incomparable talent that led him to win an Oscar for a movie based on a TV show (The Fugitive). Can you imagine if that happened today? The Oscar goes to...Johnny Knoxville for Dukes of Hazzard! Barry Pepper dives right into a thoroughly repugnant character, a brutal racist and a lousy husband, and manages to hold the audience's concern. The underutilized Melissa Leo of Homicide: Life on the Street is excellent as the village bicycle (see Austin Powers if you don't get the reference), and Dwight Yoakam has a few noteworthy moments as the local sheriff. I was worried when I thought the actor playing Melquiades Estrada was also the locksmith-with-a-heart-of-gold in Crash, but I was, thankfully, incorrect. Never see Crash! I can't stress that enough.

This movie reminded me a lot of Unforgiven, because it is a straightforward, honest, character-driven western. There are small bursts of action, but the plot is sustained by the characters' internal progress. People make choices (or not) and people change (or not), each with a different result. There is no "6 months later" scene to resolve leftover issues or answer difficult questions. I greatly appreciated the succinct, matter-of-fact ending. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is an amazing film and will hopefully become a classic once more people are exposed to it.

Is Nacho Libre destined to become a classic? I'll have my "no" answer for you next week.