An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


                Tommy Lee Jones might as well stamp his movies with the heel of his hand, so distinctive is his style.  There is good in that, and bad, and all of it is on display in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”  This movie is his relentless pursuit of personal justice.

The movie opens in the desert dust of the Texas/Mexican border. A coyote is eating a human corpse, and a young couple – Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his wife, Lou Ann (January Jones) – has just arrived for a tour of duty with the Border Patrol.  They will live in a trailer in a town that consists of a few houses, a café, and sand, forever sand.  Without a deep reservoir of inner resources – noticeably absent in Lou Ann – few people would be happy here.  The proprietor of the café has done the only thing she can think of to relieve the boredom:  sleep with the customers.    

                Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) was the best friend of ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones).  On the day that Melquiades is found in a shallow desert grave, the local cops rebury him in a pauper’s grave in the town cemetery without paying a moment’s attention to the who and why of his murder.  Pete, who carries the essence of Tommy Lee Jones in his soul, may not say much, but we know he will solve this murder and fulfill Melquiades’ wish of being returned to his homeland.  And he will exact vengeance. 

                For Pete, that is a command.  He identifies the murderer as  Mike, the sullen border patrolman, who will wish by the end of all this that he had never seen, much less murdered the best friend of Pete Perkins. 

                This is where the movie becomes the peculiar property of Tommy Lee Jones.  In an especially American way, Jones allows himself no sentimentality though he makes clear by his determination the affection he felt for his friend.  The second part of the American equation is loyalty.  Mess with my friend, and you’ll regret it forever.  Tommy Lee Jones has a razor instinct for depicting the mean and the ugly in people.  He scratches until he finds it, and then he twists and bends it until it breaks. 

                As Pete directs every detail of forcing the killer to haul the dead body through the desert hell that surrounds them, Jones, as actor and director, dips into the grotesque.  You will see anti-freeze and fire used to clear a face of bugs; you will see rattlesnakes; you will watch the sullen border patrolman sleep next to the decaying corpse; but mostly you will watch what Tommy Lee Jones does with these things to twist them into vengeance.  He takes a killer on a forced march to redemption in the harshest landscape West Texas can provide.  The movie doesn’t hang around long enough to see if the redemption takes root, and you will be glad of that.

Copyright (c) Illusion

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