Tommy Lee Jones’ Idiosyncratic Directorial Debut is All Over the South Texas Map
Tommy Lee Jones has a monument’s face. Ruddy, wind-creased, and lined by time, Hollywood has so far used Jones’ morally unwavering stare for deadpan comedy (see: Men in Black), no-BS seriousness (see: The Fugitive), and willy-nilly combos of the two (see: Cobb). Rare is the movie that plumbs the cranky melancholy hinted at in his wet eyes; Lonesome Dove, to its credit, did. And Jones’ latest cinematic return to his home state of Texas winningly exploits his feral calm. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones’ first directorial outing, ventures far past his curt stoicism and wanders into disarmingly maudlin, abrasively stark, darkly comic, and pathologically insane terrain.
Amores Perros and 21 Grams scribe Guillermo Arriaga penned this border melodrama with his now trademark (if increasingly tiresome) temporal fireworks, leapfrogging from characters’ pasts to their presents. Thankfully, such gymnastics are about as stylish as Estrada gets. Jones the director is firmly in the old Hollywood school of plopping the camera in a stationary position and letting the actors act, dammit, holding on faces and postures that speak louder than lines.
And his co-stars also have faces that hint that something or someone, at some time, took a part of them they’re never getting back. Rachel (Melissa Leo) waits tables at the diner where her husband cooks. Every so often she steals away for afternoons of sex and drink—sometimes with ranch hand Pete (Jones), sometimes with local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam, gruffly unsettling as ever). Rachel even befriends Lou Ann (January Jones), the new young wife who recently moved to town, and pulls her into an afternoon-delights double date with Pete and his friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo), a Mexican illegal who works with Pete. Lou Ann’s husband, Mike (the wonderfully shifty-eyed Barry Pepper), brought them down from Cincinnati for his job, working border patrol. And one day while out policing the jagged, dusty plains that stretch like sleeping cats on either side of the Rio Grande, Mike accidentally shoots and kills Melquiades, burying him in the arid soil to cover it up.
The San Saba, Texas-born Jones knows this unforgiving territory well, and his small ensemble recalibrates the portrayal of small-town, rural Texans. Only Lou Ann and Mike feel like the stereotypical travel-tired searchers, settling at the ass end of nowhere just to have someplace to be. Everybody else lives their lives at this meandering, sun-baked pace because they want to; it’s home, the way of life they love and are willing to protect with their bodies’ every breath. And Melquiades’ murder and the ensuing lack of prosecution—the body is found, dug up, and reburied in an unmarked county grave—personally affronts Pete. He doesn’t care that the law views the accident as manslaughter of an illegal alien with no known next of kin to contact; for Pete it’s simply a matter of right and wrong. So he kidnaps Mike and forces him at gunpoint to dig Melquiades up and dress his body in his clothes, and then all three travel by horseback across the border to bury the body at Melquiades’ home, with nothing to guide them but the name of the remote village and a faded, folded photograph of the woman Melquiades called his wife.
Inspired by the actual, unpunished murder of Redford, Texas, teenager Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. by a U.S. Marine patrolling for drug activity in 1997, Estrada is closer to a cinematic Cormac McCarthy novel than Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses could ever hope to be. It’s grueling in its understanding of the casual mistreatment that faces Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in this part of the country, but also myopically glib in treating white Americans as mere lesser degrees of evil. In fact, their beatific contrasts are the sort of observations that only a gringo could make: Americans watch asinine TV shows and have crude sex; Mexicans live much more naturally sociable and spiritual lives.
Luckily, Jones handles the epic journey much better that he does cultural critique, recalling classic western imagery and inverting the genre in the process. (If you’re a Sam Peckinpah fan at all, you will think of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia at least once during this flick.) And when they finally reach what Pete deems Melquiades’ final resting ground, Estrada reaches its, its, its—well, what, exactly, isn’t entirely clear. Redemption as a theme rustles just beneath Pete and Mike’s dirt-caked faces, but Estrada shrouds itself in ambiguity at its close. Like the tight-lipped Pete, Jones the director might have something to say, but he’s just not telling right now. Even so, he’s crafted a movie experience that brands itself into the memory.