Click here for



2005 – The Cannes Conquests of Tommy Lee Jones


by Harlan Kennedy


It’s a western with the charm of a rattlesnake. It comes with castanets attached to its tail, clickety-clicking through its early storybuilding as if to mesmerise us with rhythm, repetitions and the ambient noise of desert life. Then, when it chooses, it strikes: once, twice, thrice. How many funerals does it take to make a western? As many as time allows and as drama dictates.

Then again, is Tommy Lee Jones’s THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA a western?  It certainly has a western’s primal scenery and fabular storytelling. It certainly has, by the time it’s through, its raw moral callisthenics. And it sure as hell won two top prizes – for Best Actor (Jones) and Best Screenwriter (Guillermo Arriaga) – for a movie that Cannes audiences lapped up as the perfect end-of-term treat at a festival where novelty and tradition had been in close embrace throughout. (Veteran thesps Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone and Bill Murray working for the eternally self-renewing Jim Jarmusch in BROKEN FLOWERS. Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard wrestling new life into old formulae with their PARIS, TEXAS knockoff DON’T COME KNOCKING).

Jones’s film rediscovers the western by not appearing to be a western at all. At least for the first half hour. It just shambles into being like an open-range soap opera. Only later does it expand into something like a true opera, a verismo morality epic scored for full scenic orchestra, as themes of love, atonement, punishment and redemption echo across the deserts, canyons and badlands. 

At first it could almost be a John Sayles film: one without the sound of political agendas being sharpened but with the manky variety of character and sly quickening of subplots. The newly-arrived young border guard (Barry Pepper) and his wife, moving into their jerry-built dream home on the edge of nightmare. (He: “I’ll get you a Nintendo in case you get bored”). The sheriff who puts his paws all over the diner-owner’s wife and talks filthy down the phone the way she likes it (“It’s been a while since we spent some time together – you dirty bitch”). The aging cowpoke with the leathered face and snap-brim drawl, played by the man with the name above the title, whose best mate is the man with his name in the title. Tommy Lee Jones is Pete Perkins. Julio Cesar Cedillo is Melquiades Estrada, Tex-Mex homeboy whose home is the open land and open sky, but who is felled by the bullet from trigger-ready border cop Pepper, who uses unnecessary force when spooked by rabbit-hunting gunfire while spanking his, ahem, monkey. (Message to all law enforcers: do not read girlie mags while on duty).

The first hasty burial is, in twin senses, a cover-up. Get the man in the ground; shovel the falsehoods over the truth. It’s easy to lie, again in more than one sense. A slain man knows the supine innocence of death. A false man is fluent in resourceful perfidy. Soon everyone necessary is in on it, including the chief border cop, bending the arm and ear of the servile sheriff. Only Jones’s cowpoke, serving out his last active years in the arduous labour of doing nothing much on horseback, recognizes a moral imperative when it smacks him from a clear sky.

It’s here the movie starts to vein and wrinkle so wondrously. It seems to grow as old, yet as sinewy-tough, as Jones himself, whose phiz and physique were designed by nature to blend with sandblown deserts, corrugated canyons and maverick moral workouts. The existential exercise Jones never got in his last western-style outing, Ron Howard’s THE MISSING (with its oddly similar trek-and-retribution plot), is all here for him as Arriaga’s story makes picaresque companions of the hero and the killer cop he captures, plus the twice-exhumed corpse of the slain friend, and follows the trio on their redemptive horseback slog to Mexico. The destination? Estrada’s last and future resting-place in the verdant valley of his memory (a village name, a keepsake photo) – if such a place exists out there beyond the reach of the sure and familiar, beyond the bounds of what is drolly called, for some, civilisation.

But exactly what ‘civilised’ means may be the core of the movie. Does it mean the lives of vegetative whitefolk watching TV soaps in their dead-end bars and trailers, or screwing each other’s wives or husbands, or drinking themselves into nirvanas of indifference, on that Maginot line of defiance where they try to push back intruders into the American dream? Does it mean creating inanition and calling it peace? Creating a siege society and calling it home?

Or is civilisation to be found in the honours lovingly strewn on a dead friend by a living one, even if that means half-killing his killer (dragging him through a gauntlet of suffering, sickness and snakebites after leaving Pepper’s  bound-and-gagged wife at home watching the Weather Channel) while libating the accompanying corpse with what gifts of life and preservation remain to hand. When Estrada’s face is swarmed over by ants, the hero burns them off. When Estrada’s hair gets untidy, he drunkenly puts a comb through it. When Estrada starts to stink too much, the body is filled up with anti-freeze. The man providing this deodorant is a border country shack-dweller so lonely that he asks Jones and Pepper to shoot him. (They don’t, though their faces reflect a shocked and sheepish empathy).

No American movie since Peckinpah has so dared to cross the border into a gonzo tragic absurdism. Even BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA stopped short of suggesting, as Arriaga’s script does, that life across the Rio Grande might be just as stunted as life on this side. Over in Mexico they are watching the same TV soaps. The only difference is, they do it outside on cantina verandas or sitting by broken-down trucks at the roadside. While foreigners swarm into America for a piece of paradise, ‘paradise’ sneaks over the border with previews of coming attractions.

Goodness happens inside individuals. It has long escaped the dispensation of governments, cultures or societies: they just descend to the commonest low denominators. Only the individual and the love between individuals – however much it is multiplied, so long as it is not socialised or systematised – preserves those verdant valleys where hope, faith and honour survive forever. By the end of THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA even Jones and Pepper have become friends of sorts. In a sly and cheeky parody of Abolition, the hero gives his captive his freedom and the captive discovers that bondage, for all its faults, at least defined the worth of liberty, in the same way that a just punishment can define the nature and take the measure of a crime.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.