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Arts and Culture News

Jones' 'Three Burials' Fulfills Its Promise

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The new movie THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA stars Tommy Lee Jones and also marks his directing debut. The film is opening around the country today. Though it had some one-week engagements in December to qualify for Oscar consideration. It didn't get an Oscar nominations, but Bob Mondello says it's as deserving as the films that did.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

When we first see Melquiades Estrada, she's already a corpse with a bullet in his gut and coyotes nibbling at him. His murder doesn't much interest the local sheriff. To him Estrada was just another undocumented alien. But it hits ranch hand Pete Perkins really hard. He and Estrada were buddies and when the sheriff shows Pete a photo that was found in the dead man's pocket, he tears up.

(Soundbite of film THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA)

Unidentified Man #1: You know who they are?

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (as Pete Perkins): His wife and kids.

Unidentified Man #1: Do you have any idea how I could get a hold of them?

Mr. JONES: Well they live in Mexico. Can I keep this?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah I guess for a while. We're going to have to do an autopsy on him.

Mr. JONES: When you get through I want you to give Melquiades to me.

Unidentified Male #1: Hell, I can't do that. Are you crazy?

Mr. JONES: No. I'm not.

MONDELLO: Pete wants to return his friend to his family but the bullet lodged in the body turns out to be from a border patrolman's rifle. And the sheriff ignoring Pete's protests quickly has Estrada buried. For the first time.

(Soundbite of film THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA)

Mr. JONES: You know damn well he killed Melquiades. You ain't gonna arrest him are you?

Unidentified Man: You better get out of here before I throw your ass in jail.

Mr. JONES: You ain't gonna arrest him.

MONDELLO: Pete takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping the callous border patrolman who killed his friend, forcing him to dig up the body. And then transporting it to Mexico across miles of parched rocky terrain on horseback and on foot.

The screenplay, by Guillermo Arillaga, who also wrote the Mexican art house hit AMORES PEROS, is at once about border politics and about loyalty and loneliness in a still wild West. The story telling seems a little fractured at first with chapter titles and flashbacks featuring actor Julio Cesar Sadillo as an appealingly complex title character. But once the trip to Mexico is underway, the film is as clear as the big sky country it takes place in.

Just two travelers, a rapidly rotting corpse and a remarkable social critique of a story. Jones, both as director and as the main character, has fun with the tale's graveyard humor, serving the corpse antifreeze to keep ants at bay for instance. But he's not just telling a bring back the body story, in Sam Peckinpah fashion. He's offering a portrait of a community that exists on the little edge of American life, capturing the boredom of the border as well as the tension of maintaining it. He's generous with the performers as you might expect from a director who's also an actor. And he's frugal with words as you might expect from an actor who's made gruffness a trademark. And by the third burial of Melquiades Estrada, his film feels every bit as iconic as the majestic landscape its been traveling through.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.