Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 17, 2006 5:31 pm 
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[Published on Cinescene.]

Jones and Arriaga try a Tex-Mex redemption story and get it pretty damn right

This movie about a Texas ranch hand who steps outside the law so a Mexican friend will have a proper home burial and his killer may expiate his sin comes from the pen of Guillermo Arriaga, the chilango whose writing led to Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Tommy Lee Jones, a Texas good old boy, directed it and stars in it. These two facts would make The Three Burials worth watching and likely to feel authentic, but the movie contains much humor, poetry and truth besides, its wild final journey almost worthy of Cormac McCarthy, the visual poetry of cinematographer Chris Menges standing in for McCarthy's inimitable prose. (Jones owns the movie rights to Cormac McCarthy's savage and likely unfilmable masterpiece, Blood Meridian.)

Like some of McCarthy's characters Pete Perkins (Jones) and his wetback pal Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) have no families at hand, their rough laconic friendship idealized and set apart by being conducted exclusively in Spanish and based on the shared love of horses and women.

Arriaga adopts his usual split-narrative form to set up a movie whose riveting and transformative journey across wild lands into Mexico later turns increasingly linear and focused. We begin by sliding back and forth between the idealized, simplified friendship, the locale (a desolate but beautiful stretch of west Texas near the Mexican border), a café where two women are found -- the cook's wife, the weathered but still sexy Rachel (Melissa Leo), who sleeps with both the sheriff (Dwight Yoakim) and Pete on the side, and Lou Ann Norton (January Jones), the bored idle wife of new hothead Border Patolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a lean, intense fellow who's to become the villain and the changeling of the piece. Rachel has a nice thing going, but Lou Ann pines for the malls of Cincinnati and can think of little to do but sit and smoke.

Segments cut back and forth to show arrival of the Nortons and purchase of a large mobile home. We see Melquiades dead, laid in the ground. The obnoxious sheriff has trysts with Rachel, but can't get it up. TV and sex are ironically blended. Mike takes Lou Ann from behind, getting off quickly after a long day's work while staring at a bickering soap opera on a little TV. He gets in trouble for grabbing and beating some border crossers who tried to run off. He's about to have an al fresco hand-job to a skin mag while on duty when Mel's shot aimed at a coyote zings by him. The gruesome and the comic consort with the cruel and the kind. The Northern Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico becomes a character too although, as Lee has said, one that "doesn't take direction." In that wilderness Mike and Pete come to a bunch of Mexicans watching the same bickering soap on a little TV hitched to a pickup, understanding nothing, like the aged blind man (Levon Helm) who listens to Spanish radio all day without comprehending a word.

Arriaga likes coincidence to the point of the far-fetched and also relishes disconnects: the snake-cure lady is someone Norton gave a broken nose to. Pete and his adversary the sheriff improbably both sleep with Rachel. One time Pete and Mel have motel sex with Rachel and, unexpectedly, Lou Ann. In Mexico, the Spanish-speaking Pete begins bumbling in English to everybody; and when Melquiades' home is tracked down, it seems a mirage.

If Jones has a lived-in and comfy feel to him as a Texas border ranch hand/cowboy, it's because he's from there, lives there now training polo teams and (as he told an interviewer for the LA Weekly) "raising kids; raising cattle; raising, training and selling horses." But good 'ole Jones also acted in New York after rooming with Al Gore at Harvard. He's a man of enough culture to abhor the term "Western," talk of minimalist Donald Judd's influence on the film's visual compositions (the Judd museum happens to be at Marfa, Texas), and point out how the lighting in the snakebite cure scene's based on the neon pieces of Dan Flavin (it strikingly is). He's obviously aware of McCarthy. Arriago must be aware of B. Traven. There's something very Traven in Melquiades' lying about where he comes from so when the goal is reached, there's no there there. Like McCarthy's Border Trilogy, Three Burials makes the journey into Mexico a voyage to truth and older values and also wildness, insanity, and purgation. It's a surprising journey with extreme experience and humor. Unlikeable but pitiable as the wired, uptight Mike, Pepper turns into a whimperer and a screamer whose suffering intensity carries the narrative from tragi-comic ramble (and exposition of racisim) to redemptive myth. Set against Mike's fear and hysteria Pete's smiling good humor -- Jones's trademark rote mellowness -- may seem too pat. Still, the two tend to balance each other out. The snakebite that poisons and crazes Norton is almost crudely symbolic of the evil that's got to be worked out of him. Pepper gets the final cathartic moment of the movie.

To carry through the horrific/comic-to-redemptive modulation, the camera keeps its distance at the right times, but still, lugging a purple corpse, combing your dead friend's disintegrating hair and dowsing him with salt and antifreeze to keep him from rotting or getting eaten by ants as you force the kidnapped border patrolman who killed him to be your servant along the way are improbable wonders. More fable than realistic tale, The Three Burials requires suspension of disbelief if Pete's going to seem to you as just and wise as he's foolish and crazy. The chopped-up narration can lead to confusion: some of us can't for the life of us remember seeing more than two burials.

The Mexico City-born Arriaga isn't always a convincing writer but he sure is an interesting one. He provided Jones with great material to work with but it's Jones, the good cast, and cinematographer Menges who give the movie its wry authenticity.

(Jones' directorial debut was the 1995 made for TV Good Old Boys starring him, with Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Eve Calloway, Sam Shepard, and Sissy Spacek, among others. This is the second movie he has both directed and starred in.)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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