The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Tommy Lee Jones is on of the great actors currently working, the kind of bloke who has a résumé that most others would kill for and can put in a great performance without looking like he's really trying. With The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he marks his directorial début, working from a script from Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga which, due to Jones being fluent in Spanish, was a fairly easy process.
The film follows Pete Perkins (Jones), a rancher in Southern Texas who takes on a 'wetback', Melquiades Estrada, to help him with his cattle. When Estrada is found dead in a shallow grave, Perkins takes it upon himself to do what the authorities won't and investigate. Finding shells that only the border patrol use near the scene and a cup from a local café, he tracks down Mike Norton, a Gulf War vet who accidentally shot Estrada and forces him to dig up the body and take it to Estrada's hometown in Mexico.
Using a non-linear narrative, we see events from different points of view, so both Norton and Estrada's perspective on the shooting and events leading up to the fateful day, especially Norton's relationship with his bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones). The trek through Mexico is long and hard and the film is all about Norton and his journey to come to terms with what he did and find some sort of redemption.
Seemingly shot on location and using places with which Jones is familiar, including his own ranch, this is a beautifully constructed film, using the vistas and barren Mexican landscape to tremendous effect. Jones has obviously picked up a lot from various directors through his career and his use of mise-en-scène is terrific, even down to the fluorescent lighting and colours of various interior locations. The opening credits really stand out and there was apparently a difference of opinion between Jones and the producers over them, with the director prevailing and the same style is used to break up the film into the three burials.
I was impressed with how this looked on DVD and it has made the jump to High Definition flawlessly, with the 1080p picture really showcasing the cinematography.
*The pictures contained in this review are for illustrative purposes only and do not reflect the image quality of the disc.*
I've become accustomed to BDs coming with a plethora of audio and subtitle options so I was slightly surprised to find that this only comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English soundtrack and no subtitles.
This grudge aside, the soundtrack is stunning with a wonderful score and impressive soundstage from the lossless DTS soundtrack. All the ambient sounds, from the wind to leaves rustling and gunfire are presented superbly though it does take a while to get accustomed to Jones' gravelly dulcet tones and, for these, subtitles would have been useful.
There is a commentary where Jones is joined by his namesake January and Dwight Yoakum. Never the most effusive of speakers, Jones speaks in short sentences and occasionally just single words, with the two actors trying to push the thing along. They have a really tough time, with January Jones asking 'are they your cattle?' queuing him up to talk about his ranch and the experience of shooting there but he just replies 'yes'. Normally I stick it out to the end with commentaries but gave up with this at about the half-way mark.
The entire extra features package has been lifted from the DVD so you get Jones and Arriaga at Cannes (where the film won Best Actor for Jones and Best Screenplay for Arriaga) in a Q&A session which takes some doing as the questions and answers have to be translated from French into English and then back again for the audience.
You also get over 20 minutes'-worth of deleted and extended scenes which basically show that it was well edited and appropriately cut, a Making-Of featurette which is worth a watch and certainly better than sitting through the commentary, a feature on the music which plays such a large role in the film and the theatrical trailer.
I imagine that making you début, whether as an actor, composer or director must be a tough thing to do as you have no experience and others are looking to you to be as good as others with whom they have worked. During his long and varied career, Tommy Lee Jones has obviously picked up a thing or two and shows the sort of control behind the camera of someone with years of experience. As well as directing, he also plays the lead, just as Clint Eastwood did when he began helming his own films and delivers the sort of solid and soulful performance to which we have become accustomed.
It's slightly odd watching this after No Country For Old Men where Jones plays a similar role, a man at odds with society, doing things his own way and realising that America is not what it was. The casting of people like Dwight Yoakum and especially Barry Pepper give depth throughout the picture and Jones has terrific rapport and chemistry with Pepper, giving their journey through Mexico more emotion than it otherwise may have had.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a mightliy impressive film, well-written, acted and directed, particularly considering it's the director's first movie and is one of the finest westerns of recent years. The design and shooting of the film really add to Arriaga's terrific screenplay and, whilst this isn't the most impressive BD around, if you have the DVD (or even if you don't), it's worth a look simply for the AV improvement that the format allows.