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Long Last Lonesome: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Sony Pictures Classics

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Friday, April 14, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Nathan Kosub

Al Gore’s best remarks at the premiere of his old college roommate’s feature-length directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada may not have been public, but nowhere did I hear him compare it to John Sayles’s Lone Star (1996) or the 1989 TV miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Everyone, it seems, missed the first time a cowboy played by Tommy Lee Jones hauled the decaying body of his closest friend a long distance. Which is odd, since that ghost is the soul of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones were roommates at Harvard. Their appearance together at the Democratic National Convention, where Jones delivered one of three nominating speeches for then-Vice President Gore in 2000, and at the premiere of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, where Gore did a lot of smiling, underscore a fragility in Jones’s vanity project. “I wanted essentially to make a study in social contrast between the land that's south of the Rio Grande River and the land that's north of it,” Jones told a reporter at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. But Texas is the land in between.

Lone Star, now ten years old, is simply a better movie about border politics, a true landmark with regards to race and community. In it, a white sheriff and a Hispanic schoolteacher fall in love, have sex, carry on a relationship, and discover much later that they’re half-siblings by some long-buried and publicly taboo interracial union. Sins of the father and mother, they decide, and continue the affair in an unlikely, unconventional compromise. “All that other stuff, all that history,” says the woman, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña). “To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.”

Sayles went out on a limb in Lone Star, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, by comparison, isn’t much more than caricature: the adventures of the white cowboy who knows Mexicans, a Hawkeye to illegal aliens and small-town displaced alike. There is too much machismo and too much understanding in Jones’s Pete Perkins, an ungainly and transparent stand-in for the real-life Tommy Lee Jones, who wants you to know how much he, not you, knows about the world.

Jones is an actor with a face for a particular expression: sadness. But his voice sounds glib in a recent issue of the New Yorker. “The movie business has hurt my polo,” Jones told Lillian Ross for a lunch date with “The Talk of the Town.” “To realize your full potential, you have to play year-round.”

When Jones plays polo, he plays near Buenos Aires and on his own fifty acres in Florida. “I cleared the wetlands of invasive plants,” he said, “and now we grow pineapples, mangoes, papaya, peppers, and ten different kinds of bananas, including those little red Indian ones.” The red Indian bananas are the best. “We have a lot of animals, but there’s no anthropomorphizing. We don’t put little ballet dresses on the dogs or kiss them on the mouth. I respect animals. I don’t insult them.”

On the heels of such absurdity, the politics of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are indistinguishable from Jones’s self-regarding fictional camaraderie with every honest denizen of West Texas and northern Mexico. His new movie emerges as liberal polemic, full of overweight white people sunbathing in trailer parks, kindly Mexican vaqueros watching American soaps and sharing their bear meat with strangers, and a protagonist sympathetic to the fringe-dwellers of the True West, be they blind men, middle-aged waitresses, or prostitutes. Pete owns a good horse and speaks Spanish; the whole endeavor is an albatross around the audience’s neck.

Unless Jones’s film isn’t really about politics at all. In Lonesome Dove, Woodrow Call (Jones) and Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) are lifelong pals. Call makes a promise to Gus before Gus dies to take his body back to Texas. The two are ex-Texas Rangers, and business partners, in retirement, in the Hat Creek Cattle Company. Their last ride together is a cattle drive north, to Montana, where Gus dies of complications from an arrow wound. Like Pete and Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), they were best friends.

By way of McMurtry, Three Burials succeeds as epitaph over a cast of lonesome souls. Watching the trailer, I thought I could guess the scene in which Freddy Fender’s Tex-Mex classic “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” plays on the soundtrack. It’s a moment in Mexico, where Pete sits at an outdoor cantina, drinking tequila, with a setting sun behind him and icicle lights twinkling around his head. In the movie, Pete gets up, makes a call to the United States, and is told by the woman he loves (Melissa Leo) that she hasn’t ever really loved him. It was sex, she says, not unkindly.

It’s that scene that “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” seems to fit the best, but the song isn’t there. “If he brings you happiness,” Fender sings, “then I wish you all the best.” Instead it’s earlier, on the stereo in a car when Pete and Melquiades drop off their dates. Everyone sings along: “It’s your happiness that matters most of all.” In such a context, a good friend lamented, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” could be any song on the radio — meaning, I suppose, that such a casual and unnecessary moment short-changes something so unique.

But surely it is intentional that “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” plays precisely then and there. The song is wasted, yes, and would be wasted in any situation for these characters, who expect only distraction from their indelicate pastimes. The sad song isn’t present in the sad scene, and the scene is still sad without it. Pete ends up alone, the movie’s antagonist — Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) - ends up alone, Melquiades is dead; only Norton’s disenchanted wife Lou Ann (January Jones), who gets out, seems left with much of a chance.

The key moments in such lives are insignificant from a dramatic perspective, and the movie’s key moment, appropriately, stands apart from the rising action. Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) — the whole film an impotent, uninteresting, criminally negligent lawman — sets out after Pete (who has taken Mike hostage), finds him along some ridge, and takes aim with his rifle from a nearby butte. The music builds, Belmont’s deputy watches, and we briefly expect release: a near miss, interference, even injury.

But Belmont doesn’t take the shot. He rolls over, eases down the gun, and asks himself what he’s doing here, anyway, about to shoot this man he knows and doesn’t like. A hawk flies by and Belmont looks up, flat on his back and eyes to the sky. And after that, Belmont is gone — out of the movie, out of mind. He leaves. So does mistreated Lou Ann, so does Pete, by way of the woman he loves on the other end of the phone. In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, there is heartbreak, loss, and adultery, all of it general and all of it far more affecting than any self-righteous ethics or anachronistic western codes.

Maybe Jones’s New Yorker appearance says as much as you can say about him. His grandstanding Cannes opener is nothing if not self-indulgent. But such appraisal would diminish, in the end, the essential hollowness that Woodrow Call brought from Montana in the form of Augustus McCrae’s dead body all those years ago in Lonesome Dove — a loneliness that exceeds simple politics in a screenplay sad at the seams.

On the one hand, there is Jones’s fantasyland, where dogs are dogs and the little red bananas grow close enough to pluck from the polo saddle, and that is the world that the message and the press of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada belong to. But there is something else entirely at work in Jones’s film, and he deserves credit for the fundamental sincerity, if not the execution, of that pain. Watching so much loneliness unfold — here or in that theatre in New York City where two ex-roommates thought, maybe for awhile, of all the girls they talked about in those first few nights at college — the coin of the realm becomes consolation. Simply something shared, good or bad.

A political message is never the right one in times of too much public uncertainty — it doesn’t mean enough, deep down. And that is why it is worth mentioning Al Gore, Jones’s perennially disappointed old friend, and imagining, perhaps, the respect between them. It’s hard to say what Jones and Gore think of their lives, or what they talk about in close company.

But it probably isn’t the same as what each says to the microphones, either in a scripted nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention or on the red carpet at a premiere. Sometimes you just need a sadder face than your own to displace the malaise. The movies, with their close-ups and big-screen mugs, fill that role. In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones’s face is both Pete Perkins’s and his own. In spite of one kisser, the movie succeeds.


For more: “Lunch With Tommy Lee” from The New Yorker


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