Films to Revisit: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

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I took another look at Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ at the weekend – I was struck on my first viewing three years ago at the level of craft and understanding of how to tell a story, not to mention the meaning of the story it’s trying to tell: one of how America (or any other protagonist) needs to grow up.  This time round, I was even more astonished – this film is so knowing about human relationships, loneliness, the power of economics to kill or liberate, and so delicate in its handling of what could otherwise have been either a horror film or a zombie comedy.

On the surface, it’s a simple story – undocumented Mexican migrant worker Melquiades becomes inseperably best friends with Cowboy Pete, before being killed by a border patrol agent of the jock-revenge school.  Pete has promised Melquiades that he will bring his body home if such an event were to occur, so Pete abducts the agent and together they travel the harsh terrain from South Texas to the village of Jimenez.  Along the way, a world of sorrow and loss.  And one of the most believable redemptions I’ve ever seen.

My previous viewings had left me with compassion for the individual characters on screen – two formerly popular high school students later broken by the pressure to meet unworkable standards in adult life, a cop whose ED reflects his sense of swimming in circles, a blind man who has seen it all, and two men who just wanted to be allowed to be friends, despite the oppression of national borders.  But this time, I saw something else: ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ is ultimately about the sins of colonialism and what it might take to learn interdependence. There’s no sentimental closure here, just honesty about what guilt feels like, and how a desire for revenge can turn into letting go.  It asks an obvious, and enormous question: What are the responsibilities of friendship?  What can we forgive?  How can nations whose forebears have slaughtered each other bring the cycle to an end?  This film gets better with age.

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