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The Three Burials of Malichides Estrada review

Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rancher near a small town in West Texas who befriends an undocumented Mexican cowboy named Malchiades Estrada. (Antonio Cerino) When Malchiades body is turned up by the border patrol Pete needs to find who killed his friend. Along the way Pete discovers the law is covering up the identity of the killer so he captures the suspect patrolmen Norton (Barry Pepper) and makes him unearth the body to be returned to Mexico. In a series of flashbacks we learn of Estrada’s generosity and of their womanizing together –Perkins with a popular waitress (Melissa Leo) and Estrada with Lou Ann Norton (January Jones), who is coincidentally the wife of the killer but doesn’t it.

Malchides has made Pete promise to return his body to his Mexican home should he die. It is this voyage home and the Boschian purgatory that Pete and the desert put the killer through that is the guts of the story. Salvation is gained in a trial by ordeal, including snake bite, heat, ruined feet (Pete has taken the killer’s boots), beatings, knife wounds and a near drowning. Along the way we meet a blind hermit (Levar Helm of the Grateful Dead) who shares what little he has, including his dinner (he insists on saying grace) and the antifreeze to stem the armies of insects feasting on Estrada’s body.

Jones macabre sense of humor is much in play as the two men portage the decaying body by horseback through badlands and over the Rio Grande. Think of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying where the body of a revered patriarch keeps escaping it’s box and begins to float away. There is also the sheriff (Dwight Yokum) who pretends to be more competent than he is as he runs his car into a ditch and is reluctant to actually kill anyone though he has joined in the hot pursuit of Pete. Then too there are the two women who meet at the town café where the elder has assuaged the loneliness of both Pete and the Sheriff.

Rachel, the elder of the two, says to Pete “You know I love you the most” but then says “ I could never leave my husband Bob because I love him”.

When the sheriff has trouble performing she recommends Viagra to this frustrated macho man, who turns her down:
“This never happens to me “ he says though both Rachel and us are skeptical.

Dramatic irony is invoked as the killer, a law officer who beats up Mexican migrants including women and older men is saved from snakebite by the very girl whose nose he broke in a roundup. But she has her revenge as we see them both wearing the same nose bandage at a peaceable family corn shucking where his attitude begins to change. The girl, an herbal healer, sneaks long looks at Norton and we wonder if they may have a future.

Barry Pepper is just too good as the whining young law man who can see nothing of his situation, certainly much less than the old blind man who sees his prospects with heartbreaking clarity. Jones plays Pete as a violent enough man to kill, so we are never sure until the end what he will do with his prisoner.

Much of the potency of this film must be credited to Chris Menges’ long shots of the Texas canyons and hills and of the desert flora, especially a brilliant shot of giant sun flowers. But multiple views of greenery and the sun for the sake of their beauty –as for example some have identified in A New World –do not appear here. Rather nature underpins the story, reinforcing the hard men and their actions who work within it without becoming a character in itself.

The film also uses country and western songs well , such as juke box music at roadhouses where it can be upbeat or plaintive that rattle around the heads of the main characters who join in singing with the radio and dancing too. We see the foursome return from rendezvous at a motel; a weepy western ballad brings them out of their truck to poignantly brief close-dance in the open air.

This film can be seen as politically correct to a carping nationalist , that the story is built on a POV without a requisite “balance”. Some may say there is an imbalance of bad Anglos opposing good Mexicans whom are shown as relentlessly cheerful, generous, and victimized. Mexican cowboys are hospitable to Pete and Norton , turning down Pete’s offer to pay for food and insisting they help themselves. A Mexican coyote guides Pete to the herbal healer in Mexico which involves an end run around the search party seeking Pete for the kidnap of a law officer. The herbalist healer smacks around Norton the defrocked officer around but agrees to heal this man who has harmed her.

But would it be more accurate to show Americans along the border as unrealistically soft on “wetbacks” ? In fact all the power is in one side and all the pain is on the other, the side that seeks not welfare but only to work. This is not a political film but one that deals with a painful current issue. But mostly it deals in Old Testament payback, penance, and forgiveness but also with much of the Greek tradition of the perilous voyage, reversal of fortune, and dramatic irony.

The Three Burials of Malichides Estrada
By Julian Peterson

Director Tommy Lee Jones
Producer Luc Besson
Cinematographer Chris Menges

With TL Jones
Barry Pepper
Dwight Yokum
January Jones
Melissa Leo
Diana Bauche
Levar Helm

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