People really started noticing Tommy Lee Jones fifteen years ago, with The Fugitive. He was recognizable, given his long career to that point, but it was after The Fugitive, people started talking. Since then, Jones has done some good work and some bad work. He’s not usually bad in that bad work, but come on… he’s made some really stupid movies.
So, twelve years after he “broke out,” Jones finally got around to doing something really worth noticing. As a directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is one of the finest. Given how many good directors Jones has worked with, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but Jones’s direction doesn’t really resemble any of them. It’s a particular, but traditional Western. They’ve modernized the story, but the essentials are classic.
Jones’s composition is both striking and anti-iconic. Chris Menges shoots in high contrast, emphasizing the visual beauty of the settings. Even the mobile home yard looks beautiful, even as the unhappiness drowns its residents. But Jones keeps his shots–he uses the full Panavision frame perfectly–close and personal. The shots are for the actors and their characters to inhabit more than for the viewer to admire. Jones hammers away at the idea of any sentimentality or hope for the characters.
In the lead, Jones is fantastic, but unimpressively so. He never gets flashy–the only area where he really could is with his romancing of married waitress Melissa Leo and the film avoids it, though it probably shouldn’t have. Barry Pepper is great. January Jones is great. But Leo’s the real surprise. She’s astoundingly good.
But where Three Burials has problems is with Leo and Jones. Leo is comic relief for the first half, which the script cuts to awkwardly. The story itself is linear and about Jones and Pepper, but the script jumbles it up. For the first thirty minutes, the narrative is fractured. Flash forwards, flashbacks. Lots of cute contrived relationships between characters, lots of coincidences. It’s cute instead of serious. The film’s legitimate until the end at least–the cuteness can be overlooked–but at the end, Three Burials forgets itself. It wants to be a film with an actual first act, instead of a bunch of cute edits. There’s nothing wrong with the first act and those cute edits, except they belong in a different film. Once the film really gets moving… it’s hampered with them, as it is with January Jones and Leo–who form just an interesting a relationship as Jones and Pepper, except the film ignores them.
They’re women… and it is a Western, after all.
But it’s a fine film with some excellent performances. Jones’s direction is amazing and he needs to get back behind the camera. Another big surprise is former Dimension Films horror movie composer Marco Beltrami, who does a great job here.
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones; written by Guillermo Arriaga; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Roberto Silvi; music by Marco Beltrami; produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange le Pogam; released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Pete Perkins), Barry Pepper (Mike Norton), Julio Cedillo (Melquiades Estrada), January Jones (Lou Ann Norton), Dwight Yoakam (Sheriff Frank Belmont), Melissa Leo (Rachel), Levon Helm (Old Man With Radio) and Vanessa Bauche (Mariana).