To my mind, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA is the most compelling and extreme film that I have seen since HIDDEN. Not extreme in terms of violence, alhough there is plenty of that, but in the way in which a Park Chan-Wook film is extreme. There is an absurd internal logic that is carried out to its demented conclusion, and because of the surreality of the events, the film is often extremely blackly funny.
The first half of the movie is set in a Texan border town inhabitated by the kind of washed-up, hopeless individuals that we found in Steven Soderbergh's BUBBLE, but treated with a lot less condescension. Tommy Lee Jones plays a rugged but warm-hearted rancher called Pete, who is mourning his good friend, an illegal Mexican immigrant called Melquiades Estrada. The story of Melquiades' death is told in flash-back, in an award-winning script by Gulliermo Arriaga. Arriaga used the same non-linear narrative structure in 21 GRAMS but I feel he does so to greater effect in THREE BURIALS, partly because the inter-cutting is less extreme and so feels less like an exercise in technique. We see layers of their personalities peeled away as we become more and more engrossed in the plot.
Around half way through the movie, it takes a right turn into altogether starker, more philosophically absurd territory that will be familiar to fans of Sam Peckinpah. Tommy Lee Jones' character, Pete, and Barry Pepper's character, Mike Norton, take a journey into Mexico. For Tommy/Pete, it is a journey to the logical conclusion of his personal code of honour and friendship.. Flashes of madness mingle with flashes of absolute clarity and humanity. For Barry/Mike, it is a journey that involves gaining empathy with the Mexican illegal immigrants that he once treated with such cruel indifference. Both actors turn in absolutely compelling performances and Tommy Lee Jones fully deserves his Best Actor award at Cannes.
If I had to find a flaw with this film - and I am struggling - it perhaps lies in a single scene where Barry Pepper's character casually forces himself onto his wife. She is not so much raped as too bored to object. I couldn't help but think of those lines from The Waste Land: "Exploring hands encounter no defence; His vanity requires no response, And makes a welcome of indifference." It is not that the scene is done badly, but that it is done at all. I feel that we would perfectly understand the character of Mike Norton, and the choices Luanne Norton goes on to make, without it. Moreover, in the wake of MONSTER'S BALL and the visceral scene starring Choi Min-Sik in LADY VENGEANCE, it seems like so much cinematic shorthand.
Like I said, THREE BURIALS is not for everyone, and not for every occasion. We all have times when we want fast cars and guns, or something a bit more obvious with a clear beginning, middle and end. But I really do think this is a great film, if you catch it in the right mood and just go with it.
THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA premiered at Cannes 2005, where Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Actor award and Gulliermo Arriaga won the Best Screenplay award. It has since been on release in the US and France and opens in the UK on March 31st 2006. You can read a fascinating interview with Arriago here.