Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Europa Corp.
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Length: 121 min.
Country: USA
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 20 April, 2006

Is it coincidence that the acting is only major strongpoint of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the new film directed by Tommy Lee Jones, a very good long-time actor here making his theatrical feature debut? I think not. With the exception of the Barry Pepper and his limited range (he spends the film alternating between shouting and looking incredibly serious), the ensemble, headed by Jones, is uniformly excellent, and it perhaps also not a coincidence that this is Jones' best performance in years.

Otherwise, the film has many flaws, least of which is its unfunny attempts at black comedy. A more significant flaw is the cinematography. Chris Menges is a capable cinematographer, and yet his Scope compositions here are remarkably flat and bland, unfortunate as the sheer beauty of the desert locations in south Texas deserve to be photographed accordingly. A few of the landscape shots work, but few enough that they can probably be credited more to the fact that one can't film desert scenery without getting at least one great shot. The problem may be that the compositions appear to have been framed for an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 - which Menges usually shoots in - as opposed to the film's ratio of 2.35:1 (take a look if you rent it on DVD).

A bigger problem with the film is the inconsistent editing style. The origin of this flaw is actually in the script by Guillermo Arriaga. He sticks to his standard personal convention of the broken narrative, but strangely this time, only in the first half of the film. In the first half the film jumps back and forth in time extremely quickly and with almost no visual cues to help us figure out easily where we are and as such we spend more time trying to figure out what point in time we're at as opposed to concentrating on the narrative. Once the film hits the half-way mark, however, it becomes almost entirely linear. It seems that Arriaga was more concerned with maintaining his reputation as the "broken narrative guy" instead of creating a narrative throughline that is more than a useless gimmick.

The film's poor use of ambiguity is the biggest problem in the film, however. Pete Perkins' (Jones) relationship with the titular character (Julio Cedillo) is left purposefully vague, but it's not successful in being enjoyably ambiguous (like, say, a mid-to-late period Kubrick picture). Perkins and Estrada's relationship is established in four scenes/sequences that don't effectively reveal how little to their relationship there really is, nor do they properly convey Perkins' extreme loneliness - the catalyst for the film's events after Estrada's first burial - so much as just feel underwritten and poor at expressing what we think should be a deeper and closer relationship, an error in storytelling by Jones the director. Indeed, the only way we can be sure that the two men's relationship was not a deep one and that sad irony propels the narrative is in the addition of a pathetic relationship between Perkins and Rachel (Melissa Leo), a waitress cheating on her husband with both Perkins and Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yokam). Perkins' overwhelming need to attach himself to somebody only becomes clear in this well-scripted and directed subplot. At some point, though, it feels that this subplot could have been omitted and the somewhat bulky story more streamlined if the main relationship was developed enough to not need thematically related sequences to bring it into focus.

Overall, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada isn't a bad film, but it's not a particularly good one, either. If only Arriaga and Jones had paid more attention to developing the central relationship than to cutting up the narrative, and Menges had tried a little harder with the camera, this film might even have been a great one.


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20 November, 2009 12:00  

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