Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Lowdown: A journey to bury an illegal Mexican back at his home.
When it starts raining, it pours. I have just recently raved about a good American film, and here comes another one; however, unlike the previous example which was a genuine American film, Three Burials feels more like what I am used to see from “foreign” cinema. Although contents wise Three Burials shares quite a lot with Lone Star, feeling wise it reminded me of Hidden.
It all takes place in a small Texas border town where Mexican illegals are part and parcel of normal everyday existence. Tommy Lee Jones is a nice American that appreciates a good person when he sees one, thus recruiting a lovely Mexican illegal immigrant - Melquiades Estrada - to work with him on a ranch. On the other side of the film we have Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan’s sniper), a new border patrol guard who treats the Mexicans he catches like he treats his beautiful wife – the same way we humans treat other animals.
One day, while Pepper takes a Hustler break from his guard duties somewhere in the middle of nowhere, he hears shots. Being caught in the act he fires “back” and finds that he killed a Mexican (guess who?). Being that it was only a Mexican that he killed Pepper hides away from it all, but when Tommy Lee Jones learns what took place he takes his vengeance on Pepper and together they journey Estrada’s body back to his home in Mexico for a proper burial. Most of the film deals with this journey, while the rest is mostly a collection of flashbacks exploring the events before the murder.
Tommy Lee Jones’ cinematic directional debut is a stunning work of cinema. The devil is in the details, and the above plot summary fails to do justice to the various themes at work in this film: the small town atmosphere where everyone knows everybody, the frustrations coming from living in the middle of nowhere, the indifference of the police, the corruption of the government, and the way in which people cheat on one another left and right. The most obvious topic of discussion is the treatment of Mexicans by the Americans who feel themselves superior just because they happened to be born on the right side of the border, but there’s more to it. Pepper portrays that supposedly typical American, and Tommy Lee Jones portrays the better American; however, Lee Jones is far from being perfect as well: he is delusional and he fails to see the cynicism around him. And it is the passive society in between the two contrasts that the film criticizes the most.
Best scene: There are many well created scenes here. My pick would be the one where Lee Jones takes Estrada to a cheaters’ motel with Pepper’s wife so that Estrada can have some fun (and the wife can relieve her small town boredom). Estrada, however, is so shy he doesn’t know what to do with himself in this contrived setup. The embarrassment is finally broken when the wife invites him to dance with her to the tune of the room’s alarm clock.
A lovely scene that’s packed with symbolism: Cheating, the contrasting ways in which Estrada and Pepper handle Pepper’s wife, and the way in which Pepper ends up unknowingly killing the person with whom his wife was cheating on him.
Picture quality: There is some excellent cinematography here that gives the desert border areas a life of their own. Sometimes the picture is distorted with over-saturation and high contrast, but that is obviously intentional. Lucky for us, the DVD does justice to the camera work.
Sound quality: The one thing that annoyed me the most about Three Burials was the lack of subtitles. Between the accents and the low level talking dialog was a real torture to keep up with, and the number of times I had to stop and ask “what did they just say” was stupidly excessively high. Especially as often my partner was just as unable to comprehend the dialog, making rewinds the order of the night.
I guess it’s one of those things that happen with low budget cinema: they cut costs by avoiding DVD subtitles. However, this cannot be the explanation here, since Three Burials is full of extra features on a double DVD set.
It’s just a shame that a film so good is let down by something so stupid.
Overall: Three Burials is one of those films you keep thinking about for days after you watch them. I’ll be harsh and give it only 4 out of 5 stars: you can blame the missing subtitles for ruining the rhythm and the exploration of themes already explored in Lone Star under similar circumstances.

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