Maybe once every few years, if you’re lucky, you can rent a completely unheralded movie which turns out to be so startlingly well-made and enjoyable that you watch it two or three times.
So it is with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a film directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. I had heard nothing about it before renting it, but I like Jones and Dwight Yoakam, who has a supporting role.
The Three Burials is a little masterpiece. It features fantastic storytelling first of all, with an interlocking plot that manages to be both obvious and ethereal at the same time. The account unfolds out of sequence, creating richer reverberations as connections between its small cast of characters are revealed, and the pacing is deft, allowing just the right amount of time to let the viewer absorb the situations, while always moving along purposefully.
Like some Carlos Castaneda tale taking a point to ludicrous lengths, the story is an extreme lesson in responsibility. Melquiades Estrada, an illegal alien from Jiménez, Mexico, has been killed. His Texas employer and friend, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), takes on the responsibility of identifying the killer and holding him answerable for what he has done, while also keeping a personal promise that he made to Estrada.
Jones is terrific in the role — tight-lipped, inscrutable and determined, yet as warm and human as any best friend. Julio Cedillo plays Estrada with a likeable innocence and a palpable, barely-suppressed fear. Barry Pepper co-stars as Mike Norton, a border patrolman with an underdeveloped sense of decency, and the lovely January Jones plays his neglected wife Lou Ann, who is befriended by Rachel (Melissa Leo), a watchful, realist waitress. As the impotent Sheriff Belmont, Dwight Yoakam is impressively understated and real, and Levon Helm has a stunning cameo as an old blind man with only an incomprehensible Mexican radio station to keep him company.
The movie takes place in the desert brush, in bleak diners and on breathtaking mountain passes, following its characters from the most mundane private moments to the most excruciating suffering. There are tranquil sunsets, dreary sofas, fantastic colors and revolting glimpses of rotting flesh. There’s a little violence, some tender romance, the most perfunctory sex, and the finest, most dreamlike drunk-dialing and staggering I have ever seen on film.
There is also just enough black humor and magic realism to remind you that nothing should be taken too seriously. As the cliché goes, it’s more about the journey than the destination.
I rated it 5 out of 5 stars at Netflix.