April 27, 2006 -- “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is a modern western which examines the relationship between Americans and Mexicans along the U.S. border in Texas. It also examines the value of friendship and the relative value of human life. The film skitters along the lives of people in low places from an indifferent county sheriff, to bored volunteer vigilante border patrollers, to a sadistic federal border patrol officer, to a rancher, to a waitress who is having a lot of sex with men other than her husband, to a ranch hand, to a man who has passed far beyond the limits of despair.
Most of the characters in this film are unhappy and some are mean-spirited, and almost all of them seem adrift, with no purpose in their lives. The one man who does seem to have at least an idea of what to do is the film's main character, rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones of “The Missing”). Pete's best friend, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo of “The Alamo”) has been shot and killed. Perkins intends to find out who did it. He eventually finds out it was the sadistic border patrol guard, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper of “We Were Soldiers”) who shot his friend. He also finds out that the indifferent sheriff, (played by Dwight Yoakum of “Panic Room”) isn't going to do anything about it, so Perkins takes matters into his own hands.
Perkins kidnaps Norton, digs up Estrada's body and heads down to Mexico with Norton and Estrada aboard two horses and a mule. He plans to bury Estrada in Mexico, in a place of Estrada's own choosing. The sheriff and border patrol are in hot pursuit, but there is too much ground to cover in the wild border country. Along the way, they work their way through sand dunes, mountains and across the Rio Grande. Along the way, they encounter a number of interesting people, including a man who has reached the end of his rope. This is one of the saddest scenes I've ever seen in a movie.
The journey is one of spirit as well as geography and people. The mean-spirited Norton may be beyond redemption, as his wife (played by January Jones of “Dirty Dancing Havana Nights”) says in the film, but the film leaves that up in the air. It seems at the end of the film that Norton has been punished for his sins. Whether or not he will be a better man for the experience is anyone's guess. Perkin's future, too, is unknown at the end of the film. I'd like to think he found a way to offer some hope to that one man in the film who was in such terrible despair.
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