Think of it as a more subtler-version of Machete. I think that’s about right.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Pete Perkins, a Texas rancher who, following the death of his jolly pal Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), is compelled to unearth the Mexican’s corpse in order to honor Mel’s request to be buried back home where his wife and children live without him, but in doing-so, he brings the man who killed him, a border patrol guard named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper).
It seems like with all of the strict and heavy-owned laws against illegal immigration, that it would only be right for a filmmaker to come out there, speak his mind, and show us how we all are all the same, just with different heritages. I never would have thought that that filmmaker in-question would be Tommy Lee Jones of all people, but hey, who better??
Well, after watching this movie, I could probably answer that rhetorical question by saying, “anybody, really”. This is Jones’ directorial-debut and although the guy definitely seems like he has a general-idea of what he’s doing, what’s he trying to say, and how he’s getting his point-across, it still feels like a first flick of a director that doesn’t quite know what he’s doing just yet. The problem that Jones runs into with this flick, is that he doesn’t know where or what to focus on and instead of giving one piece of the story line the most attention and detail, he instead tries to have it all of the other, different ways, and just jam-pack them all in there for good fun. All the story lines and sub-plots that Jones throws in here, are all pretty fun and amusing to watch, but they take away from what could have been a real, emotional-trip that looked at the way human-nature is, and how it’s misfortunes can be cured.
That general idea and message that Jones seems to get across, does eventually get said and pointed-out to the audience, but not as strong or as emotionally-impacting as it could have been. There are too many moments where the flick seems to jump back-and-forth between all of these different stories and characters, and as interesting as they all may truly be, they still take the steam and energy out of what Jones seems like he was going for in the first-place. You’ll come to know these characters for all that they are, for better or worse, but there comes a point where you start to have enough of them and just want to Jones to get on with whatever the hell he’s trying to point-out. It’s a long, slow-trip that I didn’t mind taking in the first-place, but at the same time, I also feel like it’s a trip I would have enjoyed a whole lot more, had Jones knew how to edit his film the right way and shave off about 15 to 20 minutes of the final-product.
Then again, it is a Western and Westerns are usually long, slow, filled with themes that discuss morality, and featuring plenty shots of the harsh and unforgiving desert. If there is anything that Jones does do right as a director in this flick, it’s that he does know how to keep an interesting story, just exactly as that and never for once did he really lose my attention. Yes, some moments seemed like they were unneeded in the grand scheme of things, but you start to focus on what Jones is doing as a director, and realize that the guy’s making your typical Western, except a whole lot more subtle than you’d expect.
The morality theme doesn’t really hit hard until the last 10 minutes, and it becomes very clear what it is exactly that Jones is trying to get-across, it’s actually very thoughtful. Without giving too much away and spoiling the moral dilemma this film brings-up very clearly, I’ll just say that the actual death of this main character isn’t a very easy one to understand, and in ways, you don’t really know who you fell bad for more. Him, or the guy who killed him. It’s not an easy decision to swallow and try to think about, and this flick definitely isn’t about the easy answers and that’s something I really have to give Jones credit for. There may not be a whole lot here that really works well with this central-theme, except for the last 10 minutes, but those last 10 minutes will actually stick with you, and they are what I forgive Jones for mainly. However, when you look at the final-picture, there is something that’s left to be desired.
Tommy Lee Jones as a director may not be the finest piece-of-work he has ever done, but Tommy Lee Jones as the main-actor in this story, well that’s a different story. Tommy Lee Jones is basically playing Tommy Lee Jones, but you know what? It doesn’t matter all that much because he’s good, believable, and a pretty stand-up guy that you feel like has a reason to be mad and do all of this nutty-shit, but also feel like he’s a nicer-man than he’ll have you believe by his thoughts or his actions. TLJ is always good when he’s playing himself and even though it’s nothing new or refreshing we haven’t seen from the guy already, it’s still a nice-spectacle to see, even if his direction may not be able to catch-up quite as much with his acting.
Playing the guy that practically gets forced and carried on this long, grueling trip is Barry Pepper, a very, very underrated actor that really makes his character work like gangbusters, even if the script doesn’t seem like they really know what to do with him. By that, I mean that the guy definitely seems like the type of character you don’t know whether to like, trust, or even give a shit about, but somehow, the movie doesn’t feel the need to develop him at all to make us think any of these things. He’s sort of just there, getting dragged-around, looking dirty, and being scared to high heavens of when exactly he’s going to die and be buried with this dude that he killed. Pepper makes it a performance that’s worth your while and I can definitely say it’s one of the meatier performances I’ve seen from him in quite some-time, but just like TLJ’s direction, there’s a lot left to be desired here and it’s a real shame, too, because this character could have really been the most memorable one of the bunch.
The supporting cast is pretty solid, too, and definitely make this film all the more entertaining, even if TLJ doesn’t exactly know when to stop focusing on them and get on with the actual story. January Jones plays Pepper’s bored and lonely housewife that begins to realize she can get a real kick out of life, if she just learns to live a little and sleep around with some fellow-cowboys. Jones learns that from Melissa Leo’s character, who seems like she’s practically been fucking every guy in town. That is, every guy that isn’t her husband. Leo and Jones are great together as the two, wild and free gals that seem to love being in everybody’s else’s beds, and getting a fresh-taste of life, among other things, they both seem like nice characters for another movie where their presence’s are used more and help move the story along. After awhile, they just become a drag to the story and only there for Jones to show us that it’s not a total sausage-fest. Dwight Yoakam is also perfectly-cast as the dimwit Marshall of the little county that says he doesn’t need Viagra, but yet, can never seem to be able to get it up when he’s about to bone Leo. I don’t know what his deal is, I’d be ready as soon as I saw her walking towards me.
Consensus: Underneath all of the constant subplots, characters, and added-on explanations that feel unneeded, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada actually has a nice point to bring-up about friendship and human-nature, that is well-performed and brought-out very well by Pepper and Jones, but in the end, seems like it wasn’t focused on enough to really make much of a difference in the end, and just seems like a trouble, first-movie for TLJ. And that, is exactly what it is, too.
5.5 / 10 = Rental!!