The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (15)

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The Independent Culture

Sam Peckinpah did not labour in vain. His legacy is alive, if not exactly well, in the revenge Western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which revisits the favoured Tex-Mex border country of "bloody Sam" and the dusty-spurred fatalism that he wore like a badge of honour. And who better to undertake that pilgrimage than Tommy Lee Jones, his very face a landscape of stubbled ridges and ancient clefts wherein one might trace a lifetime of yearning and regret. If there was ever anything about the crepuscular badlands of the American south-west that Peckinpah overlooked in a movie, or Cormac McCarthy neglected in a novel, then Jones certainly makes good the omission here.

It's a cross-border collaboration. Jones, born and raised in West Texas, directed the picture himself, but he hired a Mexican, Guillermo Arriaga, to write it. Acquaintance with Arriaga's recent output - the screenplays of Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2004) - would be enough to prepare you for a head-on collision with loss, remorse and redemption, and he duly obliges. The story pivots on the accidental shooting of a Mexican ranch-hand, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), by a border-patrol officer named Norton (Barry Pepper); he seems likely to get away with it, too, given that the authorities don't take much trouble over "wetbacks", but then news of his guilt reaches the dead man's close friend, Pete Perkins (Jones), and nemesis snaps quickly into action.

Arriaga, in a signature move, deals out the narrative from a shuffled deck of flashback and aftermath. So we know of Melquiades's death before we get the story of his friendship with Perkins, and scenes of their cattle-herding days, while not in the misty-eyed nature of Brokeback Mountain, indicate nonetheless an abiding affection for one another. Indeed, Perkins brings along the shy Mexican on a double-date at a motel with waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo) and her friend Lou Ann (January Jones); the fact that both women are married seems a matter of perfect irrelevance, as if this dead-end border town with its pick-up trucks and lonesome diners had nothing better to offer. The account of the death and burials of Melquiades is broken up and replayed, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, and the third time as a potent compound of the two.

Even with its weighty themes of crime and retribution, Jones's film doesn't take itself so seriously as to make it a punishment for his audience - unlike that other recent homage to Peckinpah, The Proposition. Arriaga's screenplay is not above having some sly fun, principally with the local law enforcement. Dwight Yoakam, as the sheriff who hates Pete, proves no great shakes as the leader of the manhunt: "What about that heat-seeking radar y'all got?" "It don't work." Later, after Pete kidnaps Norton, forces him to disinter his victim's corpse and then help carry it across the Rio Grande to its resting place in Mexico, the film becomes a strange journey of penitence and a somewhat grotesque primer in how to keep a cadaver from rotting.

And is there not also a rueful comedy in the ordeal that the guilty man undergoes for his sins? I'm not sure how much of his own stunt-work Pepper did on this movie, but he seems to have been through the mangle here: abducted from his home, beaten around the face, force-marched through miles of desert, dragged through a river, bitten by a snake, scalded by coffee and then dinged on the head by the pot it came from. Buster Keaton could hardly have suffered more for his art. True, this second half feels more rambling and scrappy than the first, and it virtually drops the enjoyable stories of those errant wives. Yet there is something satisfying in the way the patrolman's torments become an allegory of contrition and, by extension, an apology. A decent burial isn't the greatest honour you can pay a man, but it's a start.

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