Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A promise kept in a friend's burial

Friendship is a beautiful thing.

The bond is as magical as the stars. It enriches your life. At its best, it makes you feel wonderfully, totally alive. It sometimes causes you to do crazy things.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," the excellent new film from director/star Tommy Lee Jones, is about such a friendship. And about vengeance and finding redemption.

Pete Perkins (Jones) is the no-nonsense head of a cattle operation in a flat and hopeless Texas border town. Pete hires Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), here illegally from Mexico, to work for him. Melquiades is honest and gentle. He works hard. He remains faithful to the wife and children he's left on the other side of the river.

One day during a break from work, Estrada gets Pete to promise to take him back to his home should something happen to him in America. Because, as he says, he doesn't want to be buried in a land with so many f----- billboards.

Meanwhile, into town arrives Mike and Lou Ann Norton (Barry Pepper and January Jones). Mike has taken a job with the Border Patrol. He is violent and unlikable. He beats a woman trying to make it into the United States. He makes love with the passion of a milk commercial. He is haunted by hidden demons.

Lou Ann soon gets bored. She hangs out at the local diner and talks to waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who seems to spend most of her time sleeping with both Pete and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam).

Mike shoots Estrada in a senseless accident. The local sheriff buries Estrada and doesn't try too hard to find the killer. Pete does. He kidnaps Mike and forces him to help him fulfill his promise to return Estrada to his hometown. The journey transforms them all.

If this sounds like a retread of "Lonesome Dove," you couldn't be more wrong. Nothing is quite what it seems. In fact, what makes "The Three Burials.." such a fine film is that it subtly brings home the point that human beings, despite our attempts to believe otherwise, are ambiguous. We're complicated. We're not, as most movies at least imply through weak character development, black-and-white stereotypes.

I'm not totally sure why, but this movie touched my soul. Part of it may have been the haunting landscapes that made me think about the Texas books of Larry McMurtry. Part of it might have been the excellent honky-tonk soundtrack. Part of it may be the performances.

But more than that, "The Three Burials..." makes a comment about the bond between souls and how friendship can ease even the hidden hurt of the lonely. It says something about loyalty and honor and all those things few people seem to believe in anymore. It is a film about finding out who you really are.

If nothing else, it stays with you long after the lights have come up. That alone makes this movie something special.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is rated R for adult language, violence and sexual content.


Blogger Brian Hornback said...

vGreat Review Mabe.

7:07 AM  

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