The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 

Somber film flushes out border racism

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a film about borders—not those drawn in the sand to form nations, but those drawn amongst people, those carved into societies as acceptable norms. The film directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones, Three Burials is the result of Jones' personal interest in human rights issues on the Texas border and his conversations on the subject with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams). Set in a small town in west Texas on the banks of the demarcating Rio Grande, the mighty Mexican-American border serves as the integral yet subtle foci of conflict in a story where the land reaches in all directions uniformly and the infamously rigid international line in the desert is imperceptible. What is noticeably present is the separation that border creates in the social environment in west Texas.

When ranch hand Pete Perkins (Jones) hires illegal immigrant cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), the two form a friendship that takes place on screen entirely in retrospect and despite its minimal screen time, becomes the most personal and endearing facet of the film.

Shot by border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) while tending his goats, Estrada's remains are left in the desert where they are discovered by two hunters who shoot a coyote making a meal of Estrada's body. Local law enforcement—dismissing Estrada as a "wetback" without any family—buries the crime of Estrada's' murder when they bury his body in the town cemetery under a simple cross and heap of dirt. Without an investigation into the murder of his friend, Perkins kidnaps Norton and forces him to disinter Estrada and return his body to Mexico.

The movie offers brutal social commentary on racial relations in west Texas, highlighting the mistreatment of minorities—both the legal and illegal immigrants—face at the hands of "true blooded" Americans. Jones and Arriaga juxtapose broad, sweeping scenes of a land without definable borders with depictions of social divisions so deep, they are bridged in only the rarest of cases—as in Estrada and Perkins' friendship.

A compelling movie from all sides, but one in which the irony is spread a bit too thick at times. Watching again and again as officer Norton discovers humanity is universal, despite ethic and national differences, becomes a lesson too frequently visited on screen. And though the characters are each charictures of themselves (the Barbie Doll house wife who was popular in high school, her über-patriotic and bigoted husband, the promiscuous waitress married to the greasy cook), those stereotypes blandly represent a larger population in their microcosm and further endear the friendship of Estrada and Perkins through its personal nature.

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