I’ve had the DVD of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for over a year now, but we finally got around to watching it yesterday evening only. What a weird film! I think you can clearly see the ways in which it’s related to Guillermo Arriaga’s other scripts Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. There’s the playing with chronology; there’s the themes of migration and alienation; there’s the transnational cast of characters.
In terms of tone, though, there’s a difference. Iñárritu’s films may be highly constructed and symbolic, but in terms of the acting they are firmly grounded in naturalism. Tommy Lee Jones’ first cinematic film, on the other hand, isn’t. I’m not quite sure what it is grounded in – theatricality, perhaps? Brechtian V-effect? Some of the acting feels more like the actors are wearing an emblematic mask: I am sad and distraught, I am bored, I am frustrated. The first half hour of the film, Tommy Lee Jones’ character looks like he’s about to burst into tears – and it doesn’t change.
The weird, unsettling thing is, though, that once you’ve eased into the film’s style, it’s oddly compelling. We’re so used to naturalism and, even more, Hollywood’s mock-naturalism that we expect filmic reality to have a certain style. When we get a film that visually seems to be realistic but the acting is stylised, it’s disorienting. My first thought was: the acting in this film is really, really bad. My third or fourth thought was: there’s something to it. And by the end of the film I’d fully accepted the style.
It’s also a beautiful film to look at, and an intricately written one. There are elements that are too broad, perhaps, such as all the Mexican characters being portrayed as proto-Communists willing to share any- and everything. (“Mi caballo es su caballo”, that sort of thing.) Some of the satire is heavy-handed. But then there are scenes that develop in strange, unexpected ways: the old blind man who asks the protagonists, quite reasonably, to shoot him (see the video clip above). The Mexican cowboys sitting out in the wilderness, watching American soaps. The ways in which Jones’ character deals with Melquiades’ increasing putrefaction. And the ending, which stops just at the right moment.
But, man, what a weird film!