The Corpse Ride

I know it’s already buried in 2005, but for those willing to broaden their horizon, the strange and affecting Western “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is worth the dig. I suggest y’all get ‘em shovels, amigos. ‘Cuz here comes the dirt:

The movie is about a corpse, which gets buried three times. Oh, say what? You’re a genius and you already figured that from the title. Well alrighty then, Einstein. I’ll just ask you questions then. Who is Melquiades Estrada? How did he die? How come he gets buried three times? And how is he linked to Border Patrol agent Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and cattle rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones)? Why do all three (Pete, Mike, and corpse) travel together towards Mexico? And gee, what should you do if you want to know the answers? If you said “watch the movie,” you’re muy smart-o.

Like many hip movies these days, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is written non-linearly. This one though doesn’t seem like a gimmick plus it’s not entirely incomprehensible. It feels like digging a buried story and understandably, each shoveled scene is not in sequence. But as the movie becomes deeper, the story becomes more focused and easier to follow. The film’s first half is a tad slow, but on the last half, it giddy-ups to a compelling and odd journey.

The hidden treasure to be found is the acting. I don’t know if this is Barry Pepper’s best work, although this certainly looks the most taxing. His Mike Norton is an unlikable bitch-calling man, whom Pete Perkins captures. Mike is forced to do arduous tasks and so Pepper screams a lot in the movie. In contrast, Jones embodies the captor as a quiet man, a man who’s probably obsessed with Mexican laidback attitude.

The story sets up the meeting of these pair just right. You have Mike (an unpleasant man) who’s sorta innocent to be captured. And you have Perkins, who kidnaps Norton in all “good” intentions, but his own brand of justice questionably oversteps into cruelty. So neither man is purely good nor bad. Sadly, such unbiased characterization doesn’t extend throughout the movie. The Mexicans are portrayed as good people while the Texans are seen as bored animals, whose life only become exciting when they pride on keeping illegal aliens out.

The film is written by Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams) and is directed by Tommy Lee Jones (not in 21 Grams). Even if it centers on death, I assure you it’s far from being brain-dead like most cliche movies. Come on, cowboy/cowgirl, give it ride. The sunset is beckoning.

Grade: A-

Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Bauche, and Levon Helm
Screenplay by
Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by
Tommy Lee Jones
Rated R for language, violence and sexuality