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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Film Three Stars

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is not actually Tommy Lee Jones directorial debut, as he's already directed a TV movie The Good Old Boys. Although I haven't seen it I can summise that from this performance it might not be that bad.

TheThreeBurialsofMelquiadesEstrada_Poster.jpgThe film seems to come in two separate parts, each with its own style. The latter half is a straight story piece following the journey to the last burial of Estrada, whereas the first is edited out of timeline order and complicates the story almost making it feel overly stylised.

It is quite difficult to work out which time period you are watching during some of these scenes, and nothing really to reference your timeline in them. At times you have to completely watch the scene and start to see the next scene unfold before you realise what period in time you were watching. This makes it difficult to follow and your attention is often focused on this and not the film or the characters.

However, the second half is much better and pulls back from this editing style, preferring to concentrate on the tale of the two leads as they journey to the third burial, and this is by far the better part of the film. It's here that you really start to attach to and understand the characters, and it was here that I really started to appreciate both Barry Pepper's and Jones performances.

In one of the first scenes with Jones I was immediately concerned as he barks a line at the camera in the exact style you'd expect from a less than subtle MIB performance, but quickly he tones this down, and by that latter half of the film he's pulling out a strong and venerable performance. The scenes from being drunk in the Mexican bar onwards are filled with humanity and flaws, and his portrayal of this loyal friend of Estrada is superb and engrossing.

It's also here that we see how good an actor Pepper is, although he does manage to pull out a few good moments in the first half of the film too, it's when he's powering out raw emotion during his trek into the desert that we are taken through a slew of feelings for the character, all the way to the final scenes.

I did enjoy this film once it settled down. The camera was always moving in some fluid way, the performances had humanity, comedy and some very poignant but quiet scenes to reflect on, then there were the strong performances from the leads. Even the corpse of Estrada was a key character as well and provided some strong scenes for Jones and Pepper to act against, it was quite convincing as dead bodies go too!

However at the closing credits it did feel that there were some unexplored themes and storylines. For instance the Border Guards and the Sheriff just seem to disappear from the film at one point, never to be seen again. Explained away by an off hand line in a telephone conversation.

There is one thing though, Jones has proved he can direct. If he'd just concentrated on one style of the film, either telling the fluid story, or editing the tale through differing timelines. He shows a fondness for moving the camera and filming some impressive landscapes, as well as pulling out some key emotional scenes.

He's also managed to make this film with a strong Mexican viewpoint in the story, the casting and also the music which is particularly enjoyable.

So if the first half wasn't so erratic in nature, and the style had been solely of the latter journey, then I think this film would have received another star from myself. Still he's brought a strong tale of friendship, loyalty and morality to the screen and shown that there should be more directing from this heavyweight actor.


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Comments

Richard, I thought I would comment on this for two reasons - firstly it's one of the few films on here not to have received a comment, and secondly in my opinion this was a five-star movie and I thought I would defend it!

Criticising Jones for the fragmented style of the first part of the film is a little wrong, perhaps you should be more critical of the screenwriter. Apparently his last two films (Amores Perros and 21 Grams) had exactly the same style (I haven't seen them).

In addition, I have to say I feel the way the story was told made the "exposition" part of the film a lot more interesting for the audience - I had little difficulty in placing the scenes into before/after the shooting and think that seeing scenes of Jones and his buddy Melquiades after we've seen his demise added some poignancy. Also, moving from this section to the latter, linear, part had the effect of taking the audience closer to the characters and action at this point.

Just my opinion, anyway! I would be interested to know what you think of other films (Pulp Fiction, The Killing etc.) that use this fragmented style. Personally I feel it really works in this case - the film was a gem and one that I'll be buying on DVD.

I'm away this week BTW, so if you do reply please don't feel offended if I don't follow up... :-)

Cheers,
Steve

Hey Steve, glad to see you here.

I think Jones did a good job, and say so too. Sure you could blame the screenwriter for that fragmented style, you could also blame the editor, but in the end it's the Director who should be in control overall.

Yeah, I like the other films mentioned in your comment, and there's a huge difference between these films and this one. One is the ability to follow the fragmentation, in Jones' film it's made a lot harder to follow and in some points just too difficult. The second is (god this is turning into a work email!) that the style is totally abandoned halfway through the film and I just don't think it worked for that.

Thanks for the comments, Richard.

There's no real need to "blame" anybody for the style - in my opinion the fragmented section worked beautifully, and I would give the writer, director and editor equal credit! I think there's too much emphasis in film writing on the director being the complete author of every film they make, which of course isn't the case (although I'm not saying that you do this).

I think this film deserves an audience, and I hope readers of your review will take away the positives you have written! It may be that they take your "warning" in hand and are not thrown by the film's style, which would be a really positive thing.

You should also see The Proposition, the other great, unusual "Western" I've seen in the past month! :-)

Cheers,
Steve

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