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Friday, February 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada": A quiet, haunting Western

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," with Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Leo, Richard Jones, January Jones. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones, from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. 121 minutes. Rated R for language, violence and sexuality. Metro, Meridian.

Guillermo Arriaga's screenplays are like puzzles with the pieces meticulously rationed; different bits and particles seem to float in the air, seemingly unattached, taking their own time. Like "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" unfurls at its own pace. By its final scenes, when one character movingly calls another "son" (with a perfectly timed pause just before the word), the puzzle is complete; stark but beautiful.

Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, "Three Burials" has a deceptively laconic quality that suits Jones' persona. It's a quiet Western, taking place near the West Texas/Mexico border. Jones plays Pete Perkins, a ranch hand whose close friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo, who plays the role in flashbacks), an illegal immigrant, is found murdered. Pete, fulfilling a promise to his friend, embarks on a journey to return Melquiades' body to his Mexican hometown — with the border patrolman who shot him (Barry Pepper) in tow.

Jones and Arriaga were inspired by a 1997 news story of a Mexican immigrant shot and killed in West Texas by a Marine. They begin the film with a jumble of time-shifting scenes and images, from which a story gradually begins to take shape. The patrolman, Mike, has just arrived in town with his blank-eyed wife, Lou Ann (January Jones). Mike, skeletally thin and tightly strung, has a frightening lawlessness to him; he's angry, but we don't know at what. Lou Ann, seeming very young and very lost, doesn't understand why their lives have become so airless and lonely. "We were both real popular in high school," she says wistfully, her voice a thin little bleat.

The death of Melquiades was an accident, but one that stemmed from Mike's demons, and Pete tracks him down despite a cover-up by the town's sheriff (Dwight Yoakam). And the journey begins, with Melquiades' corpse flopped over in a saddle. It's a journey that changes both Pete, who grows closer to his dead friend even as he learns his secrets, and Mike, a shadow of a man who finally begins to lose a bit of the wildness in his eyes.

Throughout the film, fine actors contribute texture through character turns: Melissa Leo as a seen-it-all waitress who uses sex to alleviate boredom; Richard Jones as her husband, a diner cook, who's learned to look at her without seeing; Levon Helm as a blind man encountered on the journey, who pleads with Pete and Mike to help him by ending his life. "You're good men," he says hopefully, his eyes painfully slitted shut; it's almost a prophecy. Mike is not yet a good man, but perhaps he may yet become one.

Ultimately, "Three Burials" is about friendship and forgiveness; about finding redemption through a journey to a new world. And it's about the emergence of a new directing talent: Jones, in his first feature, finds the right note in every scene, bringing Arriaga's elegant cipher to life. As the characters find a new home, perhaps Jones has found one, too — on the other end of the camera.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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