July 15th, 2006
I had high hopes for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, just recently released on DVD. It had won Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Tommy Lee Jones) at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Plus, I really like Tommy Lee Jones’ previous acting work, especially in The Fugitive and Men in Black: he excels at playing law-men who have a tendency to take “justice” to excess. Whenever I listen to my Les Miserables CDs, I think I picture Tommy Lee Jones’ face singing Javert’s lines. In The Three Burials, he not only stars, but also directs his first feature film, bringing to the screen a story that he envisioned and enlisted Guillermo Arriaga to write.
But the single most compelling reason I wanted to see The Three Burials was that I’d read a review comparing it to Flannery O’Connor. Reviewer Josh Hurst writes, “you’d swear Jones had uncovered the great lost Flannery O’Connor story and turned it into a movie.” Okay, I said, I’m in.
Hurst also writes, “As the title implies, Three Burials is a movie about death, but, more than that, it’s a movie about friendship, grace, justice, and above all redemption.” Them’s my themes. Say nothing more.
My verdict after having watched the film? The Three Burials has some powerful moments, but it doesn’t entirely work for me, on its own or on Flannery O’Connor’s terms.
The film’s other theme is the Texas-Mexico border, and it may be even more timely now than when it came out, as a result of the fierce illegal-immigration debate. I would be thrilled if people who support super-strict border patrol would see The Three Burials and begin to question their position—but it’s probably unlikely that many of such folks would watch the film. And those who do will probably be turned off by the somewhat one-dimensional characterization of the border patrol.
Now, as someone who’s spent a lot of time in Latin American literature, culture, and theology classes, I’m inclined to distrust and dislike the border patrol/la Migra anyway. So, for me, the characterization of violent border patrolman Mike Norton, who, we learn early on, killed Melquiades Estrada, fits all too easily with my own stereotypes. Much of the first half-hour of the film is devoted to making sure we dislike Mike: he beats up Mexicans trying to cross the border, he reads Hustler on the job, he sexually uses/abuses his wife.
And this is actually where The Three Burials diverges from Flannery O’Connor: many of O’Connors main characters are depraved sinners, but they, to all outward appearances, are “good country people.” Their sins are sins of the mind, most often sins of pride. By the end of the story, a grotesque epiphany reveals to them the extent of their own corruption.
You dislike O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpins and Raybers and Asburys, but you are also forced to uncomfortably recognize yourself in them. In contrast, Mike is made out to be such a monster that we judge him from on high. This, for me, is the main reason that The Three Burials fails.
The film does improve somewhat once Pete (Tommy Lee Jones’ character), determined to avenge his friend Melquiades’ death, kidnaps Mike and takes him on a journey across the border to bury Melquiades. This means, since Melquiades has already been buried (after Mike had left him out in the open to rot for several days), that Pete makes Mike dig up the body. They ride across Texas and Mexico accompanied by a decomposing corpse.
I didn’t mind that so much, since I was prepared to accept O’Connor-esque bizarreness. Nor did it bother me that Pete, as Porpoise pointed out, was just a tad crazy. You’d expect that of an agent of justice and grace. Because, you see, by the end of the movie, it becomes clear that somehow Pete’s mission has changed from retribution to redemption. He’s an agent of hard grace, grace that shows people their ugliness and makes them change.
However, because Mike has been made out to be so inhuman, it’s hard to believe that he does genuinely change. Again, we’re back to that central flaw of the movie.
The Three Burials, for Jones, was inspired by the real-life murder of Esequiel Hernandez by U.S. Marines in 1997. Now, if I were using this event as my basis, I too would have been so enraged that I would have had trouble depicting the murderers as three-dimensional characters. I just couldn’t have done it. I don’t know if that’s the reason for the Mike-characterization-problem, but it seems plausible to me.
Jones has said that The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about “the mechanics of faith.” I can see how that was the intent. For me, though, faith, in a story about judgment and grace, necessitates being able to see my own rottenness. And that doesn’t happen here. I just feel righteous indignation.
P.S. To be fair, I may have also had difficulty with The Three Burials because it features gratuitous animal death. Two coyotes and a mule. I had horrible nightmares the night after I watched it.