- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” might ostensibly be classified as a Western, as it has enough of the familiar elements: gun-toting cowboys, borderland pursuits, horses plodding through dusty, desert locales.

But where even revisionist Westerns from the late ‘60s onward draw clear lines between outlaws we can root for and truly despicable villains, “Three Burials” does away with the idea of sides altogether, opting instead for isolation and windswept malaise. Under Mr. Jones’ sly, underhanded guidance, this bleakly comic anti-Western simmers with uncertainty and physical suffering; it’s a slow, stubborn march of existential grotesquerie.

Mr. Jones stars as well as directs, playing Pete Perkins, a gruff cowboy on the Texas border who unexpectedly finds himself thrust into the role of caretaker for the body of his friend Melquiades. Perkins harangues the local cops to investigate the death, but he eventually takes matters into his own hands, traveling through the Mexican desert on a mission to fulfill a promise and extract revenge.

Guillermo Arriaga’s smart script ambles forth with a dismal elegance. The disenchanted dialog is dusted with vicious, bitter innuendoes and absurdities.

Like many actors who move behind the camera, Mr. Jones coaxes strong, layered performances from his cast, most of whom play some variant on the disaffected, rural simpleton. From the mall-obsessed, shallow frivolity of a young housewife to the bitter diner waitress who shamelessly carries on multiple affairs, the movie is replete with small-town suffering.

Most prominent is Barry Pepper, who plays Mike Norton, a cruel, witless Border Patrol agent who becomes embroiled in Perkins’ journey. His scowling, jowly turn plays up the character’s dissatisfaction with his lower-class surroundings, and his constant trials add to the film’s aura of droll menace.

At center stage is the disheveled, lonely cowboy Perkins. Mr. Jones underplays his character’s muted belligerence; he droops his shoulders and moves with tacit, forlorn weariness. Shadowed under the brim of his tattered hat, Mr. Jones’ heavily etched face reflects the craggy, stolid permanence of the desert’s high rock cliffs.

Mr. Jones’ directorial sense of place is as sharp as his sense of character, and the barren, sandy hills that surround him on his journey are as integral to the film as any of the players. Eschewing the sun-baked vividness of so many classic Westerns, Mr. Jones infuses his scraggly settings with a sense of alienation.

Just as the film is replete with psychological vagary, neither does it skimp on physiological unpleasantness. From burning, ant-eaten corpses to a gangrenous foot pierced without anesthetic, the film assaults its audience with a medical school textbook’s worth of grisly physical ailments.

More disturbing still is that much of it is played for vulgar laughs — everything decays, the movie seems to say, and the only proper response is a grim chuckle.

Add to this the film’s bawdy obsession with all manner of sexual dysfunction, and the result is a movie that ranks high on both the sleaze-meter and the squeamish-factor.

“The Three Burials’ ” sparseness and cynicism will prove too dour for many, but for those with an existential bent, this revisionist Western’s blend of genre deconstruction and philosophical pondering deserves a hat tip.

***1/2

TITLE: “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”

RATING: R (For language, sexuality and grisly depictions of physical suffering)

CREDITS: Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Written by Guillermo Arriaga.

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/threeburials/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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