Dec 16, 2005

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Yesterday I saw a non gay western (hey, there's a concept!), and one well worth checking out at the Sunshine, (where they believe that their name is enough to provide heating for the freezing patrons):
The movie is The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and written by my compatriot, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who is responsible for Amores Perros and the very clunky 21 Grams.
Well, this time Mr. Arriaga has written an existential allegory of justice and redemption about the Border, (the one south of here, if you have to ask) which is no small feat. To sound less pretentious, he has written sort of a pretentious western, but he gets lots of Brownie points for ambition and sheer moxie.
Good for him for writing a western about the border.
Good for him for finally writing an actual human character that is not a symbolic representation of a big preachy notion.
Good for him for imagining a border crossing in reverse. *For more info on this, go see the movie.
Mr. Arriaga, true to his Mexican roots, has a morbid, sentimental temperament. He also has an original mind, a dark sense of humor and a great sense for structure. Unfortunately, subtlety is not his forte. He doesn't trust that the audience can get it without being hit over the head with a tortilla press. Although the dialogue in this film is much more fluid than the one in 21 grams, Arriaga is inconsistent; he writes good zingers and then some pretty stilted dialogue, to be fair, both in Spanish and in English.
Still, this is a real western, which is lovely, and I would say, daring. There are magnificent landscapes, there are horses and cowboys and cattle. The movie does not depict the industrial wasteland of maquiladoras and ugly shantytowns that make up much of the actual border. The majestic Big Bend National Park is the backdrop for a more dreamlike crossing. Here, however, very real Mexicans risk their lives to cross over, where the equally real Border Patrol lies in wait to send them back.
Barry Pepper, the American Klaus Kinski, plays a transplanted Cincinattian who has just moved to this nowhere land with his pretty prom queen wife. He is a violent, insensitive border patrolman who handles the "wetbacks" and his wife with an utter lack of finesse. Yet by the end of the film he goes through so much punishment that I was hoping he got part of the domestic gross, at least. He represents the ultimate Mexican revenge fantasy --Kick the Gringo's Ass. It's between funny and appalling, until Arriaga bestows the character with redemption and everything turns to mush.
Tommy Lee Jones directs himself into an amazing performance as Pete, a wizened ranchhand who befriends the Melquiades Estrada of the title. Mr. Jones' face looks like Big Bend itself. Deeply lined and pockmarked, it is a compact landscape of human experience. His gaze is sad, and his magnificent voice quite mellow, but he is a strong and stubborn man, quick and efficient with violence, set in his lonesome ways. It is a great character and Mr. Jones smartly imbues Pete with a quirky, dry authenticity. He is the best thing in the movie.
My very excellent movie companions commented that this movie was so intense, so bloody and graphic, that it could not have been written by a gringo. It's a good point, because the violence is, unlike most American film violence, feral, intimate and messy, not choreographed. Guillermo Arriaga likes big, dramatic gestures; he has a penchant for the grotesque which is quite Mexican in sensibility. Although there are some very smart twists to the story, it is quite baroque, or, like the Mexican baroque, Churrigueresque. The tone of the film oscillates between dark humor and philosophical musing, and then it turns into an almost surreal optimistic fable about the power of redemption. Even the music gets schmaltzy at the end.
Still, the Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is an enigmatic, entertaining film and on the topic of the border, one of the most interesting so far.
Can't wait for the one with none other than J.Lo investigating the deaths of Mexican women in Juarez (!!).

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