DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

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  1. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

    US Theatrical Release: Limited: December 14, 2005; Wide: February 3, 2006 (Sony Pictures Classics)
    US DVD Release: June 6, 2006
    Running Time: 2:01:05 (29 chapter stops)
    Rating: R (For Language, Violence and Sexuality)
    Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic & 1.33:1 non-anamorphic (Extra Features: N/A)
    Audio: English DD5.1 (Extra Features: English DD2.0)
    Subtitles: English, French, Spanish (Extra Features: None)
    TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
    Menus: Not animated.
    Packaging: Standard keepcase; insert features cover images from other Sony Pictures Classics and MGM titles on both sides.
    MSRP: $26.96

    THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3.5/5

    In some ways, rural areas along the U.S.-Mexico border resemble the remote, anarchic settings of classic Westerns. They feature wide-open vistas, little visible government beyond essentially independent local law enforcement officers, and people with an independent spirit necessary for survival in such isolation. This sort of place provides the backdrop for The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, a rather odd and quite morbid tale of loyalty, friendship, and frontier justice.

    The film is presented in two distinct parts, each of which focuses on the relationship of director Tommy Lee Jones' character, grizzled rancher Pete Perkins, with another man. There is a father-son element to both of these relationships, but they are nearly opposite in tone – the first is a deep friendship that could pass for a family bond, while the second is a captor-hostage situation that borders on bloody revenge.

    The first half of the movie introduces the major players and sets up the situation in a non-linear fashion (a common feature of scribe Guillermo Arriaga's work, including Amores Perros and 21 Grams, which, like Melquiades, explore death-related themes). By scrambling the chronology, Arriaga adds a little interest to a simple act of stupidity and the straightforward reactions to it of characters who wear their motivations on their sleeves. The second part of the film, which progresses chronologically, involves a deranged quest for a personal brand of justice.

    It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that nothing of note has happened in Cibolo County, on the U.S.-Mexico border, for a very long time. That changes when two new elements appear and meet in a freakishly random, tragic moment. First to arrive is the titular character (Julio Cedillo), a Mexican who has surreptitiously crossed the border looking for work. He meets Perkins, who takes a liking to the good-natured Estrada and gives him a job at the ranch where he works. The two men hit it off, spending their free time together and sharing conversations as deep as can be had by such strikingly masculine archetypes.

    Following Estrada into town are young border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones). Just beginning their married life far away from their hometown of Cincinnati, they are essentially children in adult bodies, neither of them having yet developed a grown-up sense of security. Mike is a hotheaded slave to violent impulses and soulless sexual desires, while Lou Ann seems bored to the very core of her being from the moment they take up residence in Cibolo.

    Norton's itchy trigger finger leads to the first burial of Melquiades Estrada -- a quick interment in a hastily dug shallow grave that probably couldn't be found even by the person who’d dug it without the aid of hungry wildlife. A pair of hunters following said wildlife discover the body, and the authorities are notified.

    Perkins is livid at the apparent murder of his friend, but local law enforcement, in the person of indolent and irritable sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), is not about to expend any effort on an investigation of a crime against an illegal Mexican worker. Despite Perkins' protests, the second burial of his friend follows without much more fanfare than the first -- a public employee uses a tiny tractor to dig and then cover the barely marked tomb in a pauper's cemetery.

    This becomes too much for Perkins to bear, but he is powerless to do anything about it. Powerless, that is, until a fortuitous coincidence provides him with both the identity of the killer and the knowledge that the authorities have no intention of acting on that information. This leads him to an act that is rash to the point of insanity, but that may also be the only reaction that his sense of loyalty and justice will allow him.

    Perkins is going to give his friend a third burial, this time a proper send-off, and he’s going to make sure that the man responsible for all three understands what he’s done and atones for it. Perkins once made a promise to bury Estrada in his beloved hometown, and he’s going to fulfill that promise no matter the cost. This involves an epic journey through the Mexican wilderness by Perkins and Norton, with the exhumed, rotting corpse of Estrada in tow. The border patrol, in a near-literal representation of the modern world and its values (or lack thereof), is hot on their trail.

    Some have compared this film, especially the journey with the corpse, to the work of Cormac McCarthy and of Sam Peckinpah. But it doesn’t have enough action to relate closely to Peckinpah, and although a darkness does pervade the story, it’s not nearly so bleak as McCarthy’s West. These are sad and highly flawed characters, but even the worst of them don’t have the depth of evil or pure amorality in their souls that is often found in McCarthy's tales.

    The film does have a modicum of humor to offset the morbidity of the main storyline, especially when it comes to sex. Norton has sex (it sure ain't makin' love) with his wife about as intimately as he does with a girlie magazine, while she barely notices what’s happening, focused on a soapy TV drama whose whiny characters blatantly reflect her own insecurities. The local fast woman, Rachel (Melissa Leo), gets her only entertainment in casual intimacy with a number of men, including both Belmont and Perkins. In a scene that goes a long way towards turning the viewer’s feelings towards Belmont from disgust and dislike to ridicule and pity, he covers his genitals with his hat when a tryst with Rachel doesn’t go exactly as planned.

    These well-drawn, deeply melancholy characters and fine performances by the cast provide a winning combination of humor and pathos (mainly the latter). Most of them lead fairly empty lives, reaching out for whatever small connections they can find. Perkins’ friendship with Estrada feeds his old-fashioned values, which in turn spark the lunacy that brings him together with Norton. It is these values, which Perkins clings to in the face of a modern world that has no place for them, that form the heart of the film.

    Still, it’s not a film for everyone by any stretch. It will be tough for many to find characters to relate to here, and parts of it will simply be too macabre for some. At its root it’s a simple yet rather weird story, with a few situations that feel very contrived. But for those who aren’t too put off by the story’s gruesomeness, negative characters, or contrivances, it’s an interesting piece of work.


    THE WAY I SEE IT: 1.5/5

    Who killed Melquiades Estrada? Apparently, it was the Edge Enhancement Fairy, taking her vengeance on Sony Pictures Classics for all the nice-looking DVDs they’ve been putting out. I’m half-tempted to put this film in the animation category, what with the cel-shading-like outlining of every character. On top of that, someone had the bright idea to squeeze both widescreen and pan & scan versions of this 2-hour film onto one side of a disc (I wonder whether Tommy Lee Jones had anything to do with that, since Man Of The House featured the same compromise), which works great for folks who prefer digital artifacts to image detail. Did Stevie Wonder supervise this transfer?

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln liked the play's colors.


    THE WAY I HEAR IT: 3.5/5

    Unlike the video, the audio gets the job done. In keeping with the spirit of the piece, the soundtrack is sparse, with only occasional music and a minimum of effects. The LFE and surround channels are not overly active, but do appear in the mix enough to bring some life to what is mainly center channel dialogue.


    THE SWAG: 1/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

    Commentary With Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam and January Jones

    This track is more chatty than informative. They touch on a few interesting anecdotes, but don’t expect to be blown away. There are a few too many dead spots in there as well.

    Trailers

    Zilch!

    SUMMING IT ALL UP

    The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
    The Way I See It: 1.5/5
    The Way I Hear It: 3.5/5
    The Swag: 1/5


    The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is yet another elegiac look at old-West values struggling to survive in a world that has left them behind. It’s a bit more off-kilter than most, with a morbid streak and a protagonist who walks a thin line between eccentric and insane. If it sounds appealing to you, give it a rental – the depressingly cruddy image screams “wait for Blu-Ray” to anyone who might want to add a copy to the collection.
     
  2. Holadem

    Holadem Lead Actor

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    Ya got that right, the relating part. I de-tes-ted this thing, a deeply unpleasant and unrewarding experience all around.

    Beurk.

    --
    H
     
  3. Yumbo

    Yumbo Cinematographer

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    I liked it, and the image was acceptable. Freedomland was WAY better (image), with the dual ratio as well.
     
  4. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Interesting. I hope that doesn't signal a trend.

    Chris, you weren't distracted by the heavy EE in 3 Burials? I seem to remember that you have a big screen, right?
     
  5. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Just a note for anyone considering watching this one -- DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER BEFOREHAND. I finally saw it yesterday, and it practically condenses the entire movie into 2 minutes. Ugh.

    And to clarify: this is Tommy Lee Jones' theatrical directorial debut. He directed a made-for-TV film in 1995.
     
  6. Elijah Sullivan

    Elijah Sullivan Supporting Actor

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    Well, I didn't detest the movie, but I was disappointed. The first third of the film is really damned good -- truly great directing skill -- but the movie gets less and less interesting as it plods along, until it finally just comes to a grinding halt. At which point the credits play. Ugh.

    It would have a been one of the better movies of the year if it were consistant, but that final act...
     
  7. Yumbo

    Yumbo Cinematographer

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    No EE on my rig, save for softness. The (music) score was tops!
    Running scared looked good - sound was ok. As in will hi def be that much better? I can wait...silly combo discs stopping me from buying them.
     

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