Monday, July 10, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has often been compared to the ouevre of Sam Peckinpah, probably because both deal with horses, guys talking to corpses, and Mexico. However, this is a wrongheaded comparison. Here's why:

  • The editing: As a director, Tommy Lee Jones employs a jerky editing process that is unconcerned about where the camera is and what POV it is expressing. The scenes leap from one to another without any feel for what that actual picture on-screen means or why the scene was paced in any given way. Peckinpah may have sometimes failed to edit certain scenes in a self-explanatory way, but it was always clear that he thought about where the camera was and how the pace of the scene worked internally and from scene-to-scene.
  • The timeline: What the hell was up with the leaps back and forth in time in the first third? It was unclear if this was intended to speak to the memories and awareness of any particular characters or just to draw out the shooting of Melquiades Estrada. When someone remembers something in a Peckinpah film, by god, you know what's going on.
  • Flat characterization: After watching the Evil Border Patrol guy beat up some Mexicans, rape his wife, and cover up a murder, you have to start wondering what the hell is going through this guy's head to make him so freakin' mean. Compare him to Mapache in The Wild Bunch: Mapache is a mean motherfucker, a small beans warlord having to prove time and again that he's tougher than anyone around him and don't forget it (think of the telegraph scene, as mortars burst around the man, while he stands there, as oblivious and untouchable as Duvall's character would later be in Apocalypse Now). Evil Border Patrol guy is mean without meaning from the first scene on, and his redemption is wholly unearned. Melissa Leo does pretty well with her philandering waitress, but EBP's wife's transformation from bored ex-cheerleader to woman who will sleep with a Mexican cowboy she doesn't know for no apparent reason is truly one of the biggest WTF moments in a movie full of them. Also, all of the Mexican characters are straight out of noble savage territory. If they were black, people would be wondering how to get to the Land of Magic Negroes. As it is, we learn that all Mexican people are self-sacrificing, good with herbs, enigmatic, and beautiful. Sam Peckinpah knew that people are neither all good nor all bad and that when they do something, it's for a goddamn reason.
  • Contrivance: Peckinpah may have granted himself a few contrivances (Major Dundee, for instance, is predicated on the unlikely shared past of Dundee and Richard Harris's character), but in Three Burials, we have a) the man who Evil Border Patrol guy accidentally kills (namely, Estrada) is the same man that his wife inexplicably allows herself to be whored to earlier, b) without any natural transition in their conversation, Estrada suddenly tells his buddy in laugh-out-loud detail that he wants to be buried in Mexico, and goes to the point of giving incredibly detailed information about a place that apparently doesn't exist, c) the magic Mexican herb lady just happens to be the woman who EBP guy hit in the face in an early scene (left unclear: why there is only one magic Mexican herb lady and why she wanted to go to the US in the first place), and d) Levon Helm's character decides that he would rather side with some random dudes who wouldn't help him die rather than the law, 'cause... well, we don't know.
  • Rancher Pete: As the main character of the film, Tommy Lee Jones's character is a big nothing. I think he's supposed to be a typical stoic Texas cowboy, but his deep lack of affect led to some amazing non-reactions that left me wondering if he was supposed to be retarded. For instance, upon finding out that Estrada's murderer is married to the woman Estrada slept with, he does... nothing. Upon finding out that the town Estrada claimed to be from (and indeed provided, I'm not kidding with this, insanely detailed information about) doesn't exist, Pete does... nothing. Upon finding out that his girlfriend won't leave her husband and run off to Mexico with him, Pete's face shows... nothing. Looking at his friend's increasing mummified face is also similarly inspiring to a drunk Pete. He might as well be looking at some of the lovely Big Bend locales of the movie. Sam Peckinpah would never have wasted a movie on Rain Man Ranchhand here.

This is not to say that Three Burials is a complete waste of time, but seriously, if you want to see a movie about a guy trying to make things right despite the consequences, go for Ride The High Country. If you want to see a movie about a guy talking to a corpse, go see Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. If you want to see a desperate flight to Mexico, there's The Wild Bunch. If you're into dubious redemption stories, besides all of the above, there's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. And if you just like to see quiet cowboys try to express themselves, then by god, go see Junior Bonner.


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