Who knew Tommy Lee Jones, author of a Harvard thesis on Flannery O’Connor, was a devotee of her southern Gothic fiction? And who could have anticipated that in his directorial debut, the just released Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones would collaborate on a script that he says was partly inspired by O’Connor? (Guillermo Arriaga, the other collaborator, has written scripts for the celebrated Spanish films of Alejandro González Iñarritu, including the powerful Amores Perros and the disappointing 21 Grams.) Three Burials is a very good film, quite funny and yet ultimately quite serious. In its peculiar manner of combining humor, violence, and hopeful gravity, the film comes closest to the sensibility of Flannery O’Connor. Along the way, it has us laughing as we ask: Who’s crazy? What constitutes folly? And can enduring violence and abject humiliation be a path back to God?
Set along the U.S.-Mexico border, Three Burials tells the story of Pete Perkins (Jones), a Texan ranch foreman, and Melquiades (Julio Cedillo), a Mexican illegal immigrant whom Pete hires to work on his ranch. When a trigger-happy rookie Border Patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), pointlessly kills Melquiades, Pete realizes that the local authorities, led by the sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), are actively discouraging any investigation of the murder. So Pete begins his own inquiry, uncovers the truth, and then sets about delivering a strange sort of justice, aiming simultaneously to make the culprit pay and to fulfill a promise he made to Melquiades. He kidnaps Mike, forces him, while handcuffed, to dig up the foul smelling body of Melquiades, and then sets out on horseback, with Mike, to return the corpse to Mexico.
The desert and mountain settings are gorgeous and strike the right balance between captivating and forbidding. Indeed, the settings, characterizations, and pacing in the film rarely miss the mark. The two female characters are just terrific. Lou Ann Norton (January Jones), Mike’s pretty but disaffected wife, watches TV during sex, dreams of returning to Cincinatti (because “it’s real pretty and there are lots of malls”), and eventually comes to view her husband as beyond redemption. Even better is Melissa Leo, the fine actress from the TV series Homicide, who plays Rachel, the waitress at the local café where, in spite of her marriage, she is nevertheless the object of affection of the local men, including Pete.
Some viewers might see liberal political advocacy in the film. The featured border patrolman is a vicious lout, and he is eventually at the mercy of those whom he has pointlessly abused. The central journey of the film reverses the immigration pattern of escape from Mexico into the U.S.; here the journey is from the U.S. to Mexico. But Three Burials is not Traffic or Syriana. The film is less about nationalist politics or immigration policy than it is about the border as a no man’s land, where questions abound concerning what or who (if anything or anyone) is in charge. This is a place where loyalties are strained and accountability for action vacillates between anarchy and ruthless justice. (In these ways, it occasionally calls to mind the Texas of the Coen Brothers noir farce, Blood Simple, or the border world of Touch of Evil.) There’s not even anything particularly striking about the friendship between Pete and Melquiades. Pete makes a passing promise to return Melquiades’s body to his home in Mexico if his friend should die, but that’s about all. The film shows us this moment in flashback, and the scene is not invested with heavy emotion. No one would blame Pete for not fulfilling this promise, especially since it involves carrying a badly decomposing body on horseback to an obscure location.
The film’s implicit questions, which transcend politics, concern our treatment of the dead, where they rest and why we remember them. There are indeed three burials: the first is illegal but socially acceptable because the dead man is insignificant to the community; the second is legal but fails to fulfill what is due out of friendship; and the third fulfills what this debt, surpassing mere legality, in a quasi-sacramental way, the efficacy of which is intended not just for the dead man, but even more for those who must go on living. Thus, the burials also raise questions about the prospects for redemption of lost and deeply unsympathetic souls such as Mike’s. The film pivots not so much on the murder itself, or even on Pete’s fulfillment of his promise to take the body home, but on a dramatic reversal of position. The border patrolman, once powerful, independent, and free, is suddenly powerless, dependent, and enslaved. His tribulations are all quite fitting and hilarious, as he exacerbates things through his rage and his futile attempts at escape. One wonders whether he will ever manage a sorrow beyond his grudging attrition inspired by his captor.
Much of the humor in the film comes from the lengths to which Pete goes to fulfill his promise, including saving the body from an attack of ants and trying to secure salt to hold the decomposition in check. With its many moments of sheer slapstick, it feels like a cross between Three Amigos and Weekend at Bernie’s, only much funnier than either of those films. The absurdity generates certain questions: What, if anything, makes sense? And if we can’t cling to a certain basic code of decency, then what’s left? Yet clinging to that code, in the task embraced by Pete, violates all sorts of edicts of common sense and reasonable self-interest. This forces viewers to look for significance at another level, and here is where Jones locates the influence of Flannery O’Connor. He says,
”O’Connor is important to the way this movie is constructed. What you do is you consider some so-called religious thinking without the didacticism of the classical approach. You look for the allegorical intentions of what we’re taught in the Bible, and then find some way to have it revealed or expressed by common experience. You’ll find this happening over and over again in O’Connor, who was a rather classical Catholic thinker who wrote about nothing but backwoods north Georgia rednecks.”
Three Burials is a Christian story, not about “rednecks,” but about “gringos” and “wetbacks.” It is odd, or perhaps not, that Jones misses the features of the film that most reflect O’Connor’s sensibility, namely, the deep connections between violence, comedy, and grace, and the use of “misfits” as instruments of revelation. In this sense, Jones’s own character, who basically gets things right from start to finish, is a bit too ethically polished for an O’Connor story. More in keeping with an O’Connor story is the scene in the desert with a blind man who lives completely alone and listens to Spanish radio: “I can’t understand anything, but I like the way Spanish sounds.” He offers Pete and Mike a meal and then, just as they are about to leave, makes a request. Explaining that his son is seriously ill, and that he won’t be returning with food, he asks the men to shoot him, “I don’t want to offend God by killing myself. It’s a problem.” Pete is clearly moved by the request and even more by the old man’s dilemma. Grimacing, he responds, “We don’t want to offend God either,” and rides off on his horse.
Three Burials is a very peculiar sort of ghost story, with the rotting body of Melquiades as a restless ghost both in need of a proper burial and an instrument of a higher justice, wherein the condign punishments inflicted on the murderer may also be instruments of his redemption.
–Thomas Hibbs, and NRO contributor, is author of Show About Nothing.