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There's a well-known Western about a cowboy, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who satisfies his best friend's last request by transporting his body back home after he dies out on the range. The story becomes an epic quest as Jones overcomes one obstacle after another, not the least of which is the decomposing body of his friend, to get him back home for burial. This story was told in the famous mini-series, Lonesome Dove, and the dead friend was played by Robert Duvall. But this is a review of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It is the story of a cowboy, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who satisfies his best friend's last request by transporting his body back home after he dies out on the range. The story becomes an epic quest as Jones overcomes one obstacle after another, not the least of which is the decomposing body of his friend, to get him back home for burial. I think this is a case of art imitating art. But so far as I know, Larry McMurtry hasn't sued Guillermo Arriaga who wrote the screenplay for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
There are some differences between the two stories. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada takes place in the present day near the Texas/Mexico border. Jones works as a cowboy and befriends an illegal alien, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) who comes looking for a job. Unfortunately, Estrada runs afoul of a Border Patrol agent with anger-management problems (Barry Pepper), who has just moved to the area with his lovely but bored wife (January Jones). When Estrada turns up dead, Jones (Tommy Lee not January) tries to motivate the local Sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and Captain of the Border Patrol (Mel Rodriguez) to investigate. They know who did it but they don't want to rock the boat. Also in the mix, is the woman (Melissa Leo) who runs the local cafe with her husband, and happens to be sleeping with both Yoakam and Jones (Tommy Lee not January). Leo befriends Jones (January not Tommy Lee), the bored wife, and soon January is double dating with Leo, Tommy Lee and Estrada. Just to review, Tommy Lee is sleeping with Leo, and January is sleeping with Estrada. Anyway, to make a long story short, Tommy Lee gets frustrated with the pace of the official investigation into Estrada's death, kidnaps the killer (Pepper), and embarks on a magical mystery tour back to Estrada's home town in Mexico.
If you were confused by my plot summary, it will give you an idea of what I was feeling watching this movie. The story of Tommy Lee trying to get Estrada's body buried for the third time is intercut with the story of Tommy Lee befriending Estrada, so it took me a while (I'm slow) to connect the dots and realize that Estrada was also the dead body. Once I figured that out, I found this to be an enjoyable if somewhat gross movie to watch. Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors whose crusty likeability comes right through the screen whether he's playing comedy (Men in Black) or drama (The Fugitive). He's excellent here as the crusty, likeable but certifiable cowboy, obsessed with Estrada's burial(s). The rest of the cast are great too. Melissa Leo, who was in 21 Grams and more famously was Sgt. Howard in Homicide: Life on the Street, is really fab as the cafe owner who is juggling three men. Barry Pepper, best known for being the devout sharpshooter in Saving Private Ryan, is very good here, although he has to act dazed or semi-conscious much of the time. As my father remarked, he felt sorry for the stuntman who did Pepper's role. Pepper gets whacked around pretty good, over and over again, in some kind of karmic retribution for the nasty life he has led. Yoakam, who is better known as a Country & Western singer, is also pretty good at acting. He contributed to the soundtrack as well. Julio Cedillo who plays Estrada, takes his chance to shine in this role. He's been around for a long time playing bit part Hispanic characters (He's American).
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is all Tommy Lee Jones and that's not a bad thing. Jones is the director of the movie as well and he does a good job with it. The story certainly wends around a lot, and could have been edited to make it a bit tighter. But the way it is edited, fits in well with the story, matching the messiness of the plot. It's an entertaining movie. I should point out again that there are several scenes where the dead body is part of the scene and it's not a pretty sight. But if you aren't too squeamish, this is good movie to see. It's now playing at your local Indie movie theatre.