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Case Number 09561

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The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

Sony // 2005 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // June 26th, 2006

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All Rise...

In a stunning coincidence, it took Judge Eric Profancik three tries to get through the commentary track.

The Charge

For Justice.
For Loyalty.
For Friendship.

Opening Statement

Everybody wants to direct. Not being in Hollywood, I don't quite understand the desire to become director. Is it a power thing, knowing you are the ultimate control for the entire production? Maybe it's the gentler idea of having the means to have (almost) complete creative control on a project? I like that one. It's a kinder answer, one that doesn't make people seem greedy and lustful for power. But becoming a director is all the rage and has been so for years. While we don't see (or at least hear about) the big Hollywood actors becoming directors (with notable exceptions), it's the thing in the land of television. Look at any show that has any modicum of popularity, and next thing you know its stars are directing episodes. As I said, I don't quite get it.

With The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Burials for short), we are witness to the theatrical directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive). Now we must stop and ask ourselves if we are interested in this movie because we want to see Tommy direct, if we are intrigued by the title, or if we like the story?

For me, it was a combination of all three.

Facts of the Case

Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) owns a ranch in Texas near the border with Mexico. He soon befriends a new ranch hand, Melquiades "Mel" Estrada (Julio Cedillo, The Alamo), an illegal alien. The two become very close, forming a father son relationship. One day while two border patrols agents are on duty, they come across Mel's dead body, half buried, half eaten by wolves.

Pete is stunned and griefstricken by the horrible news. He immediately wants to find how this could have happened to such a sweet, kind, young man. Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam, Panic Room) is nothing but confrontational with Pete, not caring to investigate the death of this "wetback." Pete will not be deterred, and he does some digging which quickly points him in the direction of a new officer on the border patrol, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan). Mike and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones, Anger Management) have just moved to the area from Cincinnati, and neither is adjusting well to life on the border. That soon won't matter as Pete takes justice into his own hands. He kidnaps Mike and they go on a journey into Mexico to give Mel a proper burial in his hometown.

The Evidence

Obvious question and answer first: Are there three burials for Melquiades Estrada in this movie? Yes, there are indeed three burials for Mel in the film.

Now you're itching to ask what the three burials are. They are Mel's burial in a shallow grave after he was killed, his burial in a pauper's grave by the sheriff after his autopsy, and his burial in his hometown by Pete and Mike.

Did I just ruin the movie? Not at all, and, in fact, these three burials are detailed in just about every write-up you'll come across on the film. Is there ever any doubt that there will be three burials? Actually, there is, but then it would be an awfully dumb name for a film if there were only two burials.

Next line of inquiry: How is Tommy Lee Jones as a first-time director? He's not too shabby. It's a simple film without many obvious demands, but he puts it all together in a cogent, enjoyable fashion. He's able to get believable acting from his people, the cinematography is beautiful, angles and general filming is interesting with a variety of shots, and his enthusiasm for the story and the locales come through. His style is subdued, and that lack of flash meshes well with this type of story. This appears to be Jones' style, and I'm not sure he should stray far from the unhurried drama. Nice debut.

Burials is a character driven story without pizzazz. Unfolding as it needs to, the film is a true drama, with the tension flowing entirely from the people. You have Pete against the sheriff, Pete against the border patrol, Pete against Mike, and Pete against the grain. It's Pete's tale of loss and recovery.

Or is it?

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is open to interpretation. What is it really about? Is it about Pete fulfilling his friend's wish to be buried in Mexico? Is it about justice for Mel? Is it about the inequities of life for aliens? Is it about Mike's redemption for his act? Is it about personal discovery for all? You can take your pick, validate just about any of those arguments, as Burials leaves many questions unanswered. The film won't tell you exactly what it wants you to believe, prompting you to want to go back and rewatch the movie to see if you can find more details you missed the first time through. Is there a better resolution deeper in the subtext? That is for you to find out.

I'm not one who's particularly fond of the open-ended movie. I can understand and appreciate that intent, but I prefer a bit more resolution in my drama. As such, I eagerly anticipated the audio commentary with Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones. In listening to the commentary, I hoped some of the vagaries and unanswered questions would receive some elaboration from our star and actor, Mr. Jones. Much to my dismay, that was furthest from the case. The commentary offered not one iota of explanation to any facet of the story. Going a step further, the commentary doesn't offer any real information on the movie whatsoever. It's quite the boring, uninformative track, so boring that it took me three evenings just to get through it all. The first night, Tommy's droning voice (who knew he was so laid back) knocked me out after thirty minutes; the next night, I made it another hour; and finally on day three, I finished it. Normally I would have given up after the first day, but I was really hoping for some clarification on the story. But that didn't come, and I tell you that while the movie is a joy to watch, the commentary is the furthest thing from it. You can skip the commentary track entirely.

And that is the only bonus item on this disc. You won't even find a theatrical trailer.

The DVD comes available with both a 2.35:1 anamorphic and full frame option. Ignoring the latter, the widescreen print is free of errors with accurate, natural colors, hearty blacks, and great detail and sharpness. The overall look flows from the Texan (and Mexican) landscape, which is remarkably diverse. From the white sands, to the red cliffs, to the sparkling waters of the Rio Grande, the video transfer pulls you into the scene. You only have one audio option, a pleasing Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Dialogue is clear, hiss-free, and true from the center; and though this is mainly a dialogue-driven film, there are some moments for the other channels to come through, yet they are few and far between. Worthy of mention at this point is the subtle but striking score from Marco Beltrami. It enhances the film exactly as a score should. A small odd twist to the DVD is the placement of the subtitles for when our characters speak Spanish. Instead of being on the bottom of the screen, they are on the top. But if you turn on the full subtitles, they all appear on the bottom.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The glaring problem—no, oversight—of Burials is the lack of elaboration on the relationship between Pete and Mel. It's the driving impetus of the film, yet their friendship is never fully established or explained. The beginning of the film unfolds in a non-linear fashion, showing us the finding of Mel's body and then flashing back to Pete and Mel on the ranch and then back to the present. But these flashbacks are brief, giving us only snippets of the existing friendship. You can't see how it developed or why it's so strong that Pete feels compelled to carry out this journey. It's almost a footnote in a later flashback where we see Mel asking Pete to do such a thing if he were to die. Burials needs to establish more of the foundation of the friendship, why it's so strong, so we could better relate to Pete's anguish and determination. Because of this, for most of the film you wonder if you should side with Sheriff Belmont, thinking that Pete has snapped and is crazy. Some of the quirky character moments (mostly with the sheriff) should have been excised to give more time to detail the pivotal relationship.

Closing Statement

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a simple but endearing film. Flowing only from the characters and their situation (some of them decidedly quirky), the movie moves at its own pace to tell you a story of friendship and growth. These characters take this journey for different reasons, and it will change them all. This is not a groundbreaking film, but its tale is worth watching and enjoying. Balancing the quality of the story and its portrayal and the solid transfers on the disc, I give Burials a rental recommendation. The wasted commentary track and dearth of any other bonus materials detracts from the coveted buy.

The Verdict

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is hereby found not guilty of illegally crossing the border.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 91
Audio: 88
Extras: 10
Acting: 87
Story: 85
Judgment: 83

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary by Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones


• IMDb
• Official Site

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