Three Burials is another film that’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years. Not my purchase, but one which I always intended to see if I was ever in the right mood. Because there’s nothing like the prospect of sitting down with a glass of wine of an evening and watching two men lug a rapidly decomposing corpse across the Mexican border.
Flippancy aside, this is a very involving and moving film which raises important questions about loyalty, redemption, and social alienation. Set in present-day, small-town Texas, the film charts the murder and, well, three burials, of Mexican immigrant Melquiades, who is working illegally on a ranch run by Pete (Tommy Lee Jones). Initially found in a shallow grave, he is quickly re-buried with few questions asked. Tommy Lee Jones goes digging (literally) and unearths the truth about his death. Kidnapping the redneck perpetrator (Barry Pepper), he saddles up with the body and begins an odyssey to return his friend to his Mexican homeland.
While not as overt as O Brother Where Art Thou‘s allegorical journey, Three Burials nonetheless has elements of a mythical epic. Whether it’s the old, blind frontiersman they meet along the way, or the Mexican hunters who graciously share their meat and whiskey, each encounter reveals another layer of humanity. That it’s set against the backdrop of the very current reality of working-class Texas, somehow gives the story more clarity.
Tommy Lee Jones plays a character at odds with his life, yet confident in the task at hand. He is a modern-day Ethan Edwards, a man out of place in the world he has lived in all his life, forever on the periphery of normality. This is why he has such a connection with the itinerent Melquiades – both exist on the fringes of society. Like Edwards, he pursues his goal to the exclusion of all other considerations, and when it’s completed, he rides off to an uncertain future. But unlike Edwards, Pete doesn’t really change throughout the course of the film. Essentially, it’s not his story. Instead, he serves to transform Barry Pepper’s loathsome Border Patrolman into a character capable of empathy and remorse.
It’s this relationship that kicks film into life. The two men are bound together in a surreal journey of redemption, salvation and dogged resolve, accompanied by a corpse stuffed full of anti-freeze to help counter the smell. It’s a personal journey as much as a geographical one – amidst the harshness of an unfamiliar land, they have to come to terms with their own demons. According to IMDB, Jones asked the cast to read The Stranger by Albert Camus as a study in alienation, a theme that suffuses the film. People are disconnected from their lives in a way that is hard to amend. The bored housewife, new to the area, has no social network to support her everyday life; the middle-aged sheriff is metaphorically and literally impotent when it comes to making effective decisions; the illegal immigrant dreams of his family that never existed.
Bizarrely, the film reminded me a little of Lost in Translation in its depiction of alienation. But it went further than that: instead of characters trying to understand a foreign country, here they are totally confounded by the land of their birth. It’s as if the societal structures set up to help them are now betraying their hopes of a better life. Patrolman Norton and his wife are high school sweethearts – WASPish products of a system that feted them for their popularity and ambition. Now, 15 years down the line, he picks his feet in front of the TV before bending her over the kitchen sink. This is the result of their American dream.
As a study of national identity, social alienation and personal redemption, Three Burials is a sublime piece of film. As a choice for a romantic evening in, it’s probably best to leave it on the shelf for another time.