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Zettel Film Reviews » The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada – Kierkegaard: “purity of heart is to will one thing”

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The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada – Kierkegaard: “purity of heart is to will one thing”

Redemption - go the bloody hard way

Redemption - go the bloody hard way

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – Tommy Lee Jones

Soren Kierkegaard said “Purity of heart is to will one thing”. Understanding what he meant is to not ask what the ‘one thing’ is. Or at least to realise that when he said it was ‘the good’ he was starting a search for spiritual enlightenment not ending it. A journey not an arrival.

When Tommy Lee Jones’s Pete Perkins first employs, then befriends an illegal immigrant Mexican cowboy, this relationship seems to centre his previously louche, laconic, life. First-time director Lee Jones, manages to convey a powerful bond of empathy and friendship between this unlikely pair, without in any way explaining it. Certainly it is not sexual. Unless you have the reductionist view that any deep affection between men must have a sexual basis. But Lee Jones is after something much deeper I think. True the dour physicality of the masculine cowboy life is part of it, but so one feels, is Pete’s relish in both his friend’s illegal status and ethnicity. Pete is a rebel by instinct, contemptuous of the conventions of social life represented by Belmont, the Border Patrol chief (Dwight Yoakam) who understands the letter of the law, but is indifferent to the spirit of justice it is supposed to represent. Lee Jones’ own Spanish also seems authentic enough to convey a deep sense of pleasure in his character’s ability to share a language as well as cowboy skills and attitudes with his young friend – Melquiades Estrada. Even the name is a two word poem. You will find yourself repeating it in your mind.

Melquiades’ fears about his illegal status elicits a promise from Pete that should the Mexican be killed in Texas, Perkins will return his body to his wife and three children in Mexico who he hasn’t seen for 5 years. When Estrada’s body is found being eaten by a coyote that has uncovered his (first) shallow grave, then Pete’s life is thenceforth driven by a single, implacable purpose, to fulfil his promise to his friend. A will made necessity.

Writer Guillermo Arriaga’s narrative is time-fractured like the two screenplays he wrote for Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu – 21 Grammes and Amores Perros. We discover that rootless, ruthless border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who relishes the power of his role and the opportunity for excessive brutality in his conduct of it, has killed Estrada. But in the first of a number of morally ambiguous elements in the screenplay, we see that Estrada’s death though in one sense an accident, was still caused by Norton’s weakness of character and casual, trigger-happy approach to violence. The world Lee Jones portrays brings us in a sense back to Kierkegaard the father of existentialism. The borderlands of Texas and Mexico and the constant battle to survive, both poverty and Nature, red in tooth and claw, are no place for mere intentions. Only actions count. The unforgiving landscape and the Border Guards’ conflict with economic refugees brook no excuses. You act or you die. And you accept the blame for your actions even, indeed especially, when you have caused unintended but irremediable harm.

Norton’s airhead wife Lou Ann has an innate sense of boredom that can only be alleviated by shopping at the Mall or watching vacuous soaps on the TV. This last not even interrupted by joyless, loveless masturbatory sex from a husband happy to make do with The Hustler when the mood takes him. Lou Ann’s other relief from boredom is to link up with Rachel, life-worn, lovelorn wife of the local restaurant owner, for some extra-marital fun with Pete and Melquiades.

On discovering that Norton killed Melquiades Pete kidnaps him and forces him to dig up the body from its second grave into which the police had buried it. This surreal threesome, the corpse of Melquiades, Norton and Pete then set out on Pete’s mission to discharge his promise to his friend. He is driven by a single-minded purpose that recalls John Wayne’s pursuit of vengeance in The Searchers.

Lou Ann sets up the heart of Lee Jones fascinating, deceptively layered movie. She says of her brutish husband: “the sonofabitch is beyond redemption.” The intense and absorbing quality of this movie eventually invites you to judge the truth of that remark. For Pete, when Norton for whatever reason, killed Melquiades then his victim’s death entered the visceral centre of Norton’s life. Nothing less than the physical reality of his act must enter Norton’s being. Pete makes him labour and sweat to dig up the corpse, carry it about, sleep near to it, smell it. He must feel the gravity. See – because of you, this is my friend’s only existence in this world until you have finally laid to rest the rotting, stenching, remains of the life you so thoughtlessly took. Pete, implacably, like a force of nature, without a word of explanation to Norton, simply requires that he own the death of his victim.

These two men then share a dangerous journey, metaphorical and real. Everything is at stake – life and ‘salvation’. Pete is merely the indifferent force of nature that constantly rubs Norton’s face in the reality of his act. Everyone calls Pete crazy. And by normal standards he is. Yet there is an inexorable logic and profound truth in his single-minded will. If redemption is possible – this is what it looks like. Remorse must enter the soul through the guts and the blood and the sinew. Pete just opens up Norton’s body enough to let it in.

Lee Jones touches on other deep issues. If laying down one’s life for one’s friend is the greatest love – how about risking everything, including death, for the lifeless, rotting, smelling physical shell of your friend – because these are his remains and they still impose a moral imperative – mediated by a promise. Mere words in the air. A promise that extends to Melquiades’ third and finally peaceful, place of rest. And beyond.

This isn’t a wordy, philosophical film. Yet it poses deep philosophical ideas and challenges us to thought and engagement with them. Pretentious though it sounds, this is a purely Existential film: only human life is sacred in the face of an implacable and indifferent world of necessity imposed by Nature and by Man. Only our actions and our will, bring value into that world and witness to that value is more important than life itself. Paradox.

The performances, especially Lee Jones’s are pulse perfect. Barry Pepper makes any empathy or sympathy for Norton almost impossible. Yoakam is a perfect ‘jobsworth’ who eventually goes on leave rather then see even his official duty through. The women’s parts are to be truthful, peripheral, stereotypical and merely sketched. The only weakness in the movie. But a significant one. Even if this is perhaps true to the actual context of Lee Jones’s drama, it unbalances the rigour of the film’s conception. The cinematography is searing and intense and Marco Beltrami’s fusion of mexicali rock and country and western music gives the film a haunting quality that fits perfectly.

One suspects a labour of love for Tommy Lee Jones. As a first directorial effort – superb

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