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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Movie review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Barry Pepper and Tommy Lee Jones in <i>The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada</i>. Barry Pepper and Tommy Lee Jones in <i>The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada</i>.
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What's the devil in Mr. Jones?

What's with that far-off gaze of hurt that drove long, weathered crevices into Tommy Lee Jones' great face? Where do the resignation and those bottomless barrels of sympathy in his eyes come from? Why does he always look like he's about to cry? And how did it all harden into a landscape of wide reservoirs of bitterness and wisdom?

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada leaves you wondering. It deepens the mystery and seems to add new lines to his Mount Rushmore face. It's based on a crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, yet it plays personal, as if Jones, a Texas native, picked up the newspaper one day and daydreamed of poetic justice ever since. Shards of pain are scattered through, and if it eventually lifts off into slack fits of allegory, the pitch-black comedy smooths the roughest patches.

The story of a ranch hand (Jones) who promises to return the body of a migrant worker (he, of the title) to his village in Mexico, it has the attention to detail of a short story. Lots of westerns begin as short stories - even the big western of the moment, Brokeback Mountain.

Those long vistas are ripe for imagination, sometimes too much. Brokeback is a teeny bit draggy. Three Burials, though, is about right, if not pretentious enough to make a bigger stir. My guess is the title made it an unheralded art picture, but its keen attentiveness to big-sky country and no-fuss simplicity will make it, eventually, one day, a nice little underrated favorite.

That title suggests a south-of-the-border folk tale, or a magical-realist novel from Gabriel Garcia Marquez - The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada can't be as off-putting as Love in the Time of Cholera, or can it?

Here is a rawboned western of the kind they don't make much anymore. It's neither inflated in self-importance nor immune to bouts of hokiness. It's true to its legacy: The old broad archetypes of movie westerns are its characters.

But the trajectory is fresh, with the kind of confidence that shows us why Jones (like soul brother Clint Eastwood) may one day be as respected as a director as he is an actor. Besides playing Pete Perkins, Jones is making his feature directorial debut here, and like Eastwood's earliest westerns, the picture seems to grow up out of him.

Jones was inspired by the 1997 shooting of 18-year-old migrant Ezequiel Hernandez, Jr. He was shot by border patrol along the U.S.-Mexico line; the shooting has gone unpunished.

Working with the fine Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga - who juggled time and flashbacks for Amores Perros and 21 Grams - Jones gives us a border patrolman (Barry Pepper) with an itchy finger; a couple of ignored wives and greasy-spoon waitresses (January Jones and Melissa Leo, respectively); a blind man with a lonely request (Levon Helm, of The Band); and finally, Melquiades Estrada, first in flashbacks, then rotting away.

I hesitate to say more; half the film is centered on a grimly comic forced march that would give away the mystery. But as with any movie where the mystery is fractured, sifted around, and edited out of sequence, you have to ask, does this gain anything it wouldn't have if it were linear?

Here, I don't think so. Jones defers too much to Arriaga's style, which can be pointless matched to the wrong material.

Besides, the film's pleasures are less profound: Jones' casual, unforced direction, for instance, is a quiet shocker that matches the man himself. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about old western values of loyalty and dignity being crowded out by the new West of sweeping helicopters and SUVs and a moral rot, the result of which you can't help but notice. It's grotesque, slung over the back of Jones' saddle.



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