Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaActor Tommy Lee Jones turns first-time director for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a film universally acclaimed by the critics and winner of a couple of awards at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

There's a lot to admire in the film. The cinematography is beautiful. The performances, particularly from the two leads, Barry Pepper and Tommy Lee Jones are outstanding. The basic story, about friendship, loyalty, revenge and redemption, written by Guillermo Arriaga, best known for 21 Grams and the upcoming Babel, is sound. So this should be a shoo-in for a high rating.

And yet....

The film left me pretty much stone cold. It reminded me in many ways of Robert Duvall'sThe Apostle from a few years back - there's a lot to admire, but ultimately the film doesn't move me, and I have no identification with the oddball characters that are at its core. It's as if the movie had a big sign saying 'I'm art, not populist dreck' stamped all over it, and one feels one is being somewhat 'educated to', rather than entertained.

The opening acts revolve around several characters and their rather miserable lives, in a backwater in border country of the United States. Rancher Tommy Lee Jones takes on an illegal immigrant (the Melquiades Estrada of the title) from Mexico and the two men become good friends, with a promise made by Jones character about returning his friend's body to Mexico if he should die first. A violent and unsympathetic rookie cop, played by Barry Pepper, accidentally kills Estrada and the movie, two acts in, suddenly focuses in on the two central characters, and turns into a Western road trip about transporting the body to Mexico, with Jones' character playing bullying mentor to Pepper's cop.

Part of my problem with the film is the constant switching around in time (Two of the "three burials" of the title are the same burial, just depicted in slightly different flashbacks at different times in the movie). The writer and director justify this by saying that the mind doesn't work in a linear fashion and this constant switching is more true to real life. I disagree. When you're telling a story, or living real life, it happens in linear fashion, not jumping all over the damned space-time continuum. It can be an interesting story-telling device to switch back and forth of course, but here it's over-used and becomes confusing and irritating, as one's never sure whether the scene one's watching happened before or after a scene previously shown.

Worse than that, there's little identification with the main characters. Jones' character should be the hero of the piece - the patient mentor who honours his promise to his dead friend, and turns around the life of the 'empty' cop he takes on his trip. But because Jones plays the part in true 'Clint Eastwood in a western' style, he has little dialogue and it's hard to understand the man and the reason he does some of the things he does.

Not a bad film, then. Just not one that didn't excite me in any way, or one that I want to rush to see again.

The DVD is a bit of a mixed bag. The commentary track is a dull affair, with Pepper's absence sticking out like a sore thumb. Lee Jones is known for being surly, irascible and not suffering fools gladly (there's a wonderful clip on the 'Making of' featurette where a major magazine photographer desperately tries to cajole the actor into posing in a certain style, and the actor steadfastly refuses saying 'It's too silly') and where he should lead the commentary he has little to say. He's known to be a man of few words anyway, but it's as if he doesn't want to be in the recording booth and is saying as much by having a sulk and saying as little as possible. He sounds bored and disinterested throughout. Unfortunately, although he's joined by two of the minor co-stars, who could have rescued things, they too have little to say - whether because they're terrified of incurring the wrath of their boss, or because they just don't have the experience to contribute anything isn't clear.

The afore-mentioned Making of featurette is a curious affair, concentrating almost exclusively on post-production promotion after a five-ten minute introduction of throwaway on-set clips. It's mainly a documentary showing how soulless and tiresome the whole promotional side of film-making is, which, while it was useful to see (confirming my own experiences covering The Lord of the Rings movies showing how unglamorous and tortuous the whole supposedly glamarous business is) will be of little interest to those more interested in the film than what the cast and crew are put through in terms of promotional duties.

There is also a 15 minute French event audience participation interview with the director and writer, which is thankfully edited down to include decent questions instead of the gushing, begging nonsense that is usually the norm at these things, but Lee Jones is clearly uncomfortable with the whole process, and his answers invariably tend towards the monosyllabic.

I feel I'm out of wack with the world at large, and certainly the more intelligent film critics, on this movie, given the high user ratings on imdb and rottentomatoes. Regardless of my opinion, it's a film that's worth seeing, if only for the wonderful cinematography and acting performances, particularly from Barry Pepper. But for me this is definitely a rental rather than a purchase.


Reel Fanatic said...

I like "The Apostle" quite a bit, but I have to agree with "Melquiades Estrada" .. not a horrible movie, by any stretch, but all that torturing of poor Barry Pepper would have been a lot more palatable if we could identify more with either character

Ian said...

I do feel that my lack of enjoyment of "The Apostle" and "Three Burials" is my own failing rather than the film-makers. I need to revisit "The Apostle" (I haven't seen it since a first viewing in 1998) - I went into it with expectations set way too high from the reviews, and didn't get the film I'd gone in expecting.

Thanks for the comment - as a result of it I just discovered your blog, which is excellent. Now subscribed in my RSS feed reader.