Sunday, December 11, 2005

REV: Three Burials in My West Texas

An Actor, a Writer and the Silent Border Between Them
By CHRISTIAN MOERK, The New York Times, December 11, 2005

TOMMY LEE JONES started thinking about directing what would become his first feature on a deer hunt deep in the unforgiving landscape of West Texas. There was no script yet. But he already knew the film's dominant character wouldn't utter a single line.

Those silent hills were the presence around which Mr. Jones and his collaborators eventually built "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," a new picture that might be described as a modern take on Homer's Odyssey. The craggy-faced Mr. Jones plays a Texas cattle wrangler whose new friend, an illegal-immigrant cowboy from Mexico named Melquiades, played by Julio César Cedillo, is shot dead under mysterious circumstances. Stonewalled by the local authorities, the American kidnaps the killer and both begin a long trek toward redemption.

Along the way, they have become deeply entwined with another voiceless "character," the United States-Mexican border, as it snakes along the Rio Grande near Van Horn, Tex. It was a deliberate choice, Mr. Jones said, to tell a story of friendship, loss and forgiveness in a hardscrabble territory without flashing the "message" in neon, as Hollywood often does.

"Thank you for understanding that it's not 'political,' " Mr. Jones said in his familiar high, nasal drawl in a telephone interview from Palm Beach, Fla. "I've been tap-dancing around that with journalists who want to know what the political message is." Rather, he said, his character's quest has deeper narrative and cultural roots.

"It's a study in social contrasts," continued Mr. Jones, who for years has kept several ranches near the area where "Burials" was shot - and who gave each cast member a copy of Albert Camus's novel "The Stranger" to immerse them in matters of alienation and immigration.

He wanted to capture, he said, "how things are different on both sides of the river, and what the implications are in running an international border in the middle of a culture and calling it two, and maintaining that division under the penalty of violence." More than four years ago, Mr. Jones explained, he read the script for the stark 2000 urban Mexican movie "Amores Perros," written by Guillermo Arriaga (who later also wrote "21 Grams") and was hooked. Michael Fitzgerald, who eventually produced "Burials," urged Mr. Jones to call the writer. But Mr. Jones recalls saying, "No, I don't call people I don't know; one doesn't do a thing like that."

So Mr. Fitzgerald called Mr. Arriaga and invited him and his wife to dinner with himself and Mr. Jones. Mr. Arriaga and Mr. Jones, who has a producing credit on the film, started throwing ideas back and forth, and an invitation to the actor's WD ranch in West Texas soon followed.

Mr. Jones gave Mr. Arriaga a copy of the 1949 film noir "The Big Steal" for inspiration: "It's Robert Mitchum goes to Mexico," Mr. Jones said. But Mr. Arriaga wanted to construct something entirely original.

"I said, 'I'm not very good at remaking other people's ideas,' " Mr. Arriaga explained recently by telephone from Mexico City.

He said that it was during the deer hunt with Mr. Jones at the WD that the landscape itself lent him a hand. "The next morning, I saw some coyotes eating something," he recalled. "And I imagined they were eating the corpse of a Mexican illegal clandestinely buried."

Having found a narrative point to hang the story on, Mr. Arriaga went to work. By coincidence both he and Mr. Jones have friends named Melquiades, so the odyssey borrowed yet another touch of reality, as the screenwriter wrote a first draft in Spanish over the next nine months.

Later, Mr. Jones's friend Levon Helm, best known as drummer for the Band, agreed to play a blind American living on the Mexican side, adding a deliberate reference to the "Odyssey's" blind prophet.

And during filming, the exigencies of border life flavored the final product. "We were shooting a scene at the Rio Grande," Mr. Arriaga said. "And the Border Patrol said, 'If you touch Mexican soil, you have to go back to this border crossing, 65 miles away, in Redford, Tex.' They didn't mind it was Tommy Lee Jones." (Mr. Jones later clarified that it was actually a federal park ranger enforcing the law that day.) Mr. Arriaga said such experiences made the movie's point more strongly than any prefabricated "message" could have.

The landscape also deeply touched Mr. Arriaga, who has a small part in the film as a helpful Mexican vaquero, a cowboy, encountered by Mr. Jones's rancher on his way south. "It is so beautiful, and so harsh it can be deadly," Mr. Arriaga said. "The vaqueros get up at 6 in the morning and are back at 5 in the afternoon. That's why friendships in that landscape means something different than friendships in New York." Of his own role, he added, "There's only one bad actor in the film, and that's me."

Mr. Arriaga said he agreed with Mr. Jones that the film has no overriding political point, though it deals with tensions between the two countries. "Of course, there is a subtext," Mr. Arriaga said. "It can be understood for what's going on in the world. We are suspicious of each other right now. But we have much more things in common."

Audiences will recognize Mr. Arriaga's nonlinear storytelling style from "21 Grams." "In this one, I wanted the character and everyone else to be confused about what happened," he said of the pivotal moment in the film when Melquiades dies. "What happened to my friend? Who killed him? And from then on, you get rid of the confusion, and that's when it becomes linear again."

The resulting picture remains true to the conventions of a classic western. "We were struck by how it avoided sentimentality, in the way the great John Huston movies did," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which will open the film briefly this month in New York and Los Angeles before distributing it more widely in February.

Mr. Barker and his partner, Tom Bernard, met with the film's executive producers and its financiers, Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, in Cannes last summer and acquired it for the United States. The executives were clearly struck by the movie's deep roots in its genre. "It's almost a shade of Sam Peckinpah," Mr. Barker said.

And notwithstanding Mr. Jones's determination to get this troubled corner of Texas down right, the picture - like Mr. Peckinpah's work - may finally be more fable than chronicle, at least according to the government.

From the Washington headquarters of the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection office, a spokesman recently said the border is nowhere near as porous as it seems in "Burials."

Thanks to air and electronic monitoring, the spokesman said, the land may be less lonely than it appears. "Even though you may not have an agent immediately in the proximity of the border," he said, "doesn't mean we don't know something has crossed over."

Dead Man Rising: An Odyssey in Texas
By MANOHLA DARGIS, The New York Times, December 14, 2005

As a vision of the American West and the wide country around it, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" strikes both fresh and familiar chords, most of them pleasingly dissonant. Directed with a steady hand and an eye for eccentric detail by the actor Tommy Lee Jones, who also stars, this western about a Texas ranch foreman trying to bury his Mexican friend is an accounting of those borders that separate rich from poor, men from women, friend from stranger, and as such, is less an act of revisionism than one of reconsideration. As in most westerns, as in John Ford's "Searchers" and Cormac McCarthy's "Crossing," the journey here is as spiritual as it is physical, as much inwardly directed as outward bound.

The first burial of the Mexican ranch hand Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo) takes place soon after he is gunned down outside a Texas border town. A feasting coyote leads to the body, which in turn leads to a sham investigation. The local law, represented by a martinet called Sheriff Belmont (a great Dwight Yoakam), buries Melquiades a second time with a backhoe, despite the protests of the dead man's friend Pete (Mr. Jones). The corpse doesn't rest in peace for long. Pete, who affectionately called Melquiades son, starts sniffing around and finds a suspect in the person of a violent border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). With a gun and a couple of hard blows, Pete grabs Mike and then, as easily as if the two were digging for earthworms, they grab Melquiades.

The ensuing strange odyssey of the foreman, his captive and their purloined corpse takes us through one heart-soaring landscape after another, putting that hotly contested stretch of land between America and Mexico into new and beautiful relief. With Melquiades's pickled corpse slung over one horse and his battered and bruised hostage lashed to another, Pete heads toward Mexico to make good his promise to bury his friend in his own country. The travelers pass across scrubby desert and through vaulted stone canyons, their horses stumbling in sand dunes that at first seem to stretch as endlessly as those in "Lawrence of Arabia," only to give way to hills ablaze with nodding sunflowers. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Chris Menges, Mr. Jones reveals why this land still tugs at the imagination.

Written by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the similarly fractured "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" begins as two separate narrative strands that twist together only when Pete and Mike make their forced acquaintance. One of those strands, set in the present, hinges on Pete looking into Melquiades's death; the other, set in the immediate past, tells the cheerless story of the border guard and his bored baby-doll wife, Lou Ann (January Jones). Recently relocated, the young couple have yet to find their place amid the taciturn locals, many of whom seem more rootless and alien than transients like Melquiades, who rides into Pete's life one day to settle into a comfortable partnership of herding, conversation and motel visits with the local talent.

Mr. Jones, whose face is a landscape of craggy suggestiveness, handles the story's cubistic structure with finesse. The murder in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is not much of a mystery since the brutal and pathetically banal circumstances that led to it are revealed fairly early. (Still, this first-time film director and his editor, Roberto Silvi, work fast, so blink at your peril.) The mystery emerges instead from the land itself and from the two inscrutable travelers, who are often as quiet as their fast-putrefying companion. In a film filled with plaintively expressive faces, characters say as much when they don't talk as when they speak Mr. Arriaga's dialogue, which sometimes sounds like hardscrabble poetry, sometimes sounds real as dirt and is, rather surprisingly, often darkly funny.

If Mr. Jones finds humor in this rough, seemingly inhospitable landscape, it is perhaps because his love for the place and its people are so palpable. The film was inspired by the wrongful shooting of an 18-year-old Texan, Esequiel Hernandez Jr., who lived and died near the border; he was tending goats when he was killed by a marine patrolling for drug smugglers. Yet the film has neither the weight of a morality tale nor the didacticism of a political tract. In one early scene, some border patrol guards count the Mexicans whom they have just captured during an illegal crossing. Noting that three got away, one guard says, "Well, somebody's got to pick strawberries." Mr. Jones lets the line speak for itself.

Mr. Jones refrains from grandstanding, but "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is nevertheless the story of friendship that transcends borders created by policy, prejudice, wind, sun and sand. The vein of American pragmatism that runs through this journey is matched by a sense of the pastoral that finds beauty in every natural corner and a humanism that looks kindly on even the hardest face. (The actress Melissa Leo provides one of the hardest.)

If this is also, unmistakably, the story of a careless border patrol guard forced to endure the same punishing border crossing that thousands of Mexicans take, it is because, as Mr. Jones knows, somebody's got to pick the strawberries, herd the cattle, clean the house and join the ranks of a citizenry that doesn't always see the good in its midst.


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