Movie Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Mexicans as people, oh my (9/10)

MelquiadesYou want to understand the real meaning of immigration control?  Then I suggest you check out this movie and watch it multiple times.  A few weeks ago I reviewed The Visitor, an exquisite dramatic statement on the unique process the federal government (as any other leviathan-state) uses to crush citizens of Earth who happen to find themselves inside US boundaries with defective paperwork.  In that Oscar-worthy movie, the unfortunate paper-deficient world citizen was from the Middle East. In Three Burials, our victim is a ‘border’-crosser from the south.

Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones … Pete Perkins
Barry Pepper … Mike Norton
Julio Cedillo … Melquiades Estrada
Dwight Yoakam … Belmont
January Jones … Lou Ann Norton
Melissa Leo … Rachel
Irrfan Khan … Police Inspector
Saurabh Shukla … Sergeant Srinivas

Border Patrolman: How many got away?
Mike Norton: Three.
Border Patrolman: Well, someone’s got to pick strawberries.

Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is basically a solitary Mexican nomadic goat farmer living in an artificially demarcated region of Earth known as Mexico; he frequently crosses over and back from the United States, specifically near a Texas border town where at one time he hires out to hard-working cattle-ranch operator Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). In what is probably quite common, certainly more humanizing than the stereotypes, the two men become not only friends, but best friends.

Melquiades (Mel) is the younger man and innocent of the ways of the world, while Pete, though hardened by making a living in a rugged country, has a wild and funloving streak. He considers Mel a son.  In one sequence, at Pete’s instigation the two of them pick up some brewskis and a couple of local women—both married and both who go for the side-action mainly because this town is so boring you can’t even make a decent soap opera from it—and take them for a tumble at the No-tell Motel down the road.

Turns out to be a connection through the women to two other male characters important to the plot: local cop Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) and rookie Border Patrol field agent Mike Norton.  Belmont is a dead-eyed piece of work who pretty much disdains anything human or not, but he has a thing for Rachel (Melissa Leo), who waitresses at the greasy spoon truck stop run by her senility-encroaching husband, Bob.

Rachel boinks Belmont out of boredom, but she really would prefer Pete to be her man.

The following does give away a bit of the plot, but is unavoidable.

The film gets started with Mike and Lu Ann coming to town and moving into a modern mobile home.  Mike goes on patrol along the Mexican-US border way south of Odessa, TX, which is basically an uninhabited wasteland where only goats, coyotes, and rattlesnakes feel at home. Norton carelessly shoots toward where he hears shots, then with his high-powered, scoped rifle he shoots and kills the young man Melquiades.  (Mel had shot at a coyote, which was threatening his goats; presumably Mel’s on the US side of the border, but how would you know?)

Take a minute and pull out your map of Texas and look down along the Rio Grande east of El Paso and west of Del Rio: that’s the area we’re discussing. You want to talk about miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles?!  This is the dictionary definition.  Do you think someone came along and drew a big white line out there?

Norton tries to hide his crime initially, then in a series of discoveries Pete learns of the death of his friend and Norton’s role in the outrage.  This is where the movie really takes off and turns frontier justice into a celebration of justice for the oppressed—i.e. the pobrecitos, mainly in Mexico, struggling to survive in a world where they are little more than cardboard targets in the Yankees’ steroidal-corporate killing fields.  In the end, Norton, by receiving the brutal coercion he likes to wield against others, comes to a redeeming realization: “I murdered a human being.”

This movie should be mandatory viewing for any cop or soldier, especially cops or soldiers who operate equipment that can vaporize lives at a distance: Then pretentious bullies who, like some political figures we know, reveled in the personal napalming and carpet-bombing of tens of thousands of civilians in Vietnam, would be more likely to break down in consideration of the magnitude of their responsibility for personally, horribly ending the lives of these innocent real human beings—winding up in an asylum as opposed to the US Senate (tho there are similarities).

Too few Pete Perkins to go around.  A heroic morally uplifting movie.

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