The other evening I saw an interesting and, to me, very accomplished film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Though he’s directed one previous film for TV, this is Tommy Lee Jones’s big-league directorial debut. And I’m damned impressed.
It’s a simple story, taking place along the Texas/Mexico border, about Pete Perkins (Jones), a rancher whose best friend, Melquiades Estrada (played very sweetly, but without mawkishness, by Julio Cedillo), is found dead in the ranch lands that look a touch more grandiose than the pictures I set up here earlier from Texas.
Simultaneously, we follow the border guard (brutally played by Barry Pepper) who committed the murder, and then watch as Perkins carries out his idea of justice on the man, a journey that leads deep into Mexico.
The cinematography is especially striking, carried out by Chris Menges, who utilizes the terrain beautifully without ever hitting you over the head with it. A review I ran across mentioned that the film was shot largely on Jones’s Texas ranch. If so, I’m jealous of the man.The acting is wonderful across the board, clearly the result of an actor-director who wants to give his actors time to express the moment. And I was particularly happy to again see Melissa Leo, who I’d known and loved in TV’s “Homicide”, back in a solid role.
But what most struck me for the first half of the film (because this is the kind of movie that reaches a mid-point, then becomes a very different movie) was how beautifully constructed the narrative is. It’s nonlinear, following the border guard as he arrives in the small Texas town and finds a home with his wife and begins learning the job. Simultaneously, we follow the discovery of Estrada’s body, the man the guard will later kill, and the steps taken, and steps not taken by the bigoted sheriff (very nicely played by Dwight Yoakam) to deal with the body.
Yet the film never wears its subverted chronology on its sleeve. It plays along, and allowing you to figure out, over the first half of the film, what is exactly happening, and when. But you never feel cheated by this, nor really disoriented. It does what it does quietly, building on itself based on an emotional logic, rather than straight cause-and-effect.
And that, as a writer, is what encourages me to play more with my own narratives. Building stories based on an emotional logic rather than the straightforward cause-and-effect can sometimes lead to trouble; but when it works, it works in a way the reader, or viewer doesn’t always understand logically, but gets. Emotionally. I love it when that happens.
All I want to say is, it’s a very fine film. Check it out.