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  • 15
  • Adventure, Crime
  • 2005
  • 121 mins

Three Burials

Three Burials


Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in a Tex-Mex western odyssey about death, revenge and redemption


Browse our reviews of other arresting directorial debuts

At some point in most great epics, the hero travels down to the underworld to commune with the dead, unburden himself of the past and learn timeless truths. In Tommy Lee Jones' sprawling contemporary western Three Burials, three men (each arguably the film's hero) go on a similar odyssey together, and while their downward journey may only be taking them south of the Texan border, certainly all the trappings of heaven and hell are to be found there.

Outside a sleepy town in southern Texas, the bullet-riddled corpse of illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Cedillo) is unearthed from a makeshift grave, only to be quickly reburied in a pauper's grave after the morgue's cooling system fails.

Realising that the local sheriff (Yoakam) has little interest in a dead 'wetback', rancher, Pete Perkins (Jones) sets about personally investigating the murder of his friend and co-worker. Once he has discovered that the man responsible is Mike Norton (Pepper), a rookie Border Patrolman who, along with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones), has recently moved to the area from Cincinnati, 'Crazy' Pete violently abducts the callous young man, forces him to dig Melquiades up again, and sets off on horseback over the Mexican border with his two companions, one still living and one very dead.

As they travel in search of an uncharted location that is to be the final resting place for Melquiades, and perhaps for Mike too, hard lessons are learnt about the value of life, the bond of friendship, and the winding road to redemption.

In Three Burials, Arriaga follows the pattern established in his two previous screenplays, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, messing about with the normal constraints of chronological sequence to transform what might have been a very conventional revenge narrative into something multi-faceted. The discovery of Melquiades' body may be the story's starting point, but thanks to a tightly integrated series of flashbacks, his living presence haunts the film's Texan section as much as the increasingly putrescent stench of his cadaver wafts through the Mexican half.

With so many perspectives, ironies abound, as viewers are privileged with a much bigger picture than the fragments of reality available to the characters (literally, as well as symbolically, blinkered to the viewpoints of others).

It is Mike's craven response to what he has done, rather than his initial motive for doing it, that is at issue here, and in the film's balanced metaphysics, Mike is under greater threat from his own weakness of character than from Pete's rifle. His picaresque trek to the Rio Grande and beyond is a spiritual journey, a trek across the less clearly defined boundaries of memory and fantasy, of sanity and madness, of life and death, of sin and redemption.

Although Three Burials is Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, he keeps a sure hand on the reins; for all its ambitious themes, intricate plotting and open-spaced grandeur, he never lets it bolt out of control. He also cuts an iconic figure as Pete, who is as craggy and inscrutable as the landscape (stunningly shot by cinematographer Menges). At first Pepper plays Mike with suitable unimpressiveness, yet in a scene in Mexico where he watches an episode of an American soap opera that, over the border, and under very different circumstances, he had seen once before, Pepper portrays Mike's transformative moment of self-knowledge with moving intensity. From then on Mike begins to grow into a man, and to earn for himself the privilege of being called 'son', an epithet Pete had previously reserved for Melquiades alone.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Dwight Yoakam, Barry Pepper, Julio César Cedillo, Levon Helm, Tommy Lee Jones, Melissa Leo, January Jones, Vanessa Bauche
  • Director: Tommy Lee Jones
  • Screen Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
  • Producer: Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson, Tommy Lee Jones, Pierre-Ange le Pogam
  • Photographer: Chris Menges
  • Composer: Marco Beltrami

In a nutshell

Part complex character study, part Peckinpah-esque border Western, part mystic epic, Three Burials traverses its uncharted territories with a humour and humanity that lighten the burden of its sadness.

by Anton Bitel

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