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DVD ReviewPete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is a weary relic of a forgotten time. Working on a ranch in Odessa, Texas, he spends his free time drinking with his buddy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) and savoring the scenic Western landscape. Driving through town in his old pickup truck, Pete cavorts with the local waitress (Melissa Leo) and appears to enjoy his simple life. The friendly exterior is genuine, but it also hides nasty feelings of righteousness that border on mania. Following the brutal accidental killing of Melquiades by Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a U.S. border patrol officer, Pete decides to kidnap the killer and teach him his own version of Western justice. In the grand history of classic film loners like The Searchers' Ethan Edwards, Pete is determined to do right by his friend and gain true revenge.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada chronicles the arduous journey of Pete and his captive to return Melquiades' body to his requested burial site in Mexico. Mike did not intend to commit murder, but the lack of any prosecution warrants Pete to take action. Following the code of outlaw justice, he refuses to allow the government to push the incident under the rug. During their journey, the unlikely pair develops a tenuous bond, but events do not play out in the typically Hollywood manner. Pete is not crazy and his intentions are totally understandable, but his methods are extreme. The bleak, dry landscape provides the background for this slow trek on horseback. Each guy may gain a small measure of redemption, but nothing is simple in this harsh world.
This film represents the directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones, and the Western tale is close to his heart. In fact, much of the story was filmed at his personal cattle ranch in Texas. Working from a script by Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros), Jones paints an effective, complex picture of life in a tough environment. One of the best scenes involves Mike's attempted escape across the sand. Scrambling on foot across the desert, his act is hopeless and even entertaining as Pete watches from his horse. This dark blend of humor and despair permeates the entire story. As Melquiades' body decomposes considerably, the stench is nearly unbearable and it welcomes creatures looking for a meal. This nasty element adds to the apparently futile nature of the journey, which begins to shift from a revenge tale into a journey into madness.
Jones and Arriaga succeed in retaining life in the story by crafting an environment larger than the two primary characters. Mike's wife Lou Ann (January Jones) spends her days wasting time in their trailer home and drinking coffee in the local diner. He appears briefly to share non-intimate relations and drive her to the mall, but the connection is missing. Lou Ann survives by connecting with waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), and they share an enjoyable interlude with Pete and Melquiades. Rachel is married to the much older diner owner and also gets together with policeman Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) for frequent trysts. Receiving extremely limited screen time, Melissa Leo (Homicide: Life on the Street) lights up the story and creates an intriguing character. January Jones feels a bit slight as the frustrated wife, but it actually works for the role. Both actors basically disappear during the film's second half, but their presence adds weight to the overall tale.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada showcases a confident first-time director willing to take his time to present an engaging story. Events do move slowly at times, especially during the middle portion, so viewers might lose interest out in the desert. If you stick with the film, however, I expect that it will remain with you for a considerable length of time. Scenes that at first seem unimportant become surprisingly effective when taken in the context of the entire movie. Jones understands the essence of his character, a strong man who chooses a singular goal and refuses to concede until it is completed. Barry Pepper faces a difficult task of making a fairly despicable guy understandable, and he succeeds by the end. Assisted by a strong cast of supporting players, they create one of the more unique film experiences of the year.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The DVD offers the choice between a solid 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a pan-and-scan option. The widescreen picture is easily superior and features some impressive shots of the bleak outdoor scenery. It does contain some grain and a few minor defects, however, but they fail to distract significantly from the overall presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: This release includes an impressive 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer that effectively presents the film's mournful score. The rear speakers are utilized in decent fashion. The dialogue remains clear throughout, and the sound effects spring well across the entire audio field.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: The only extra feature is a feature-length commentary from Tommy Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakham, and January Jones that promises more excitement than it offers. The three speakers convey a genuine camaraderie, but they provide few notable comments regarding the film. The director is so laid back that he speaks in small phrases regarding mostly trivial issues. Yoakham does get him to discuss a few interesting details, but it takes considerable patience to sit through the duller moments. There are significant breaks within the track, and the low energy level makes it difficult for even the most ardent cinema lover.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsTommy Jones' directorial debut, The Tree Burials of Melquiades Estrada offers a bleak vision of revenge conveyed with a dark, Western tone. The plot meanders while the characters traverse the bleak Texas landscape, but the film is rarely boring. Although the lack of any memorable extra features is disappointing, this release still deserves a solid recommendation.
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