The Three Burials
of Melquiades Estrada
A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)
SYNOPSIS: Ranch hand Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones)
attempts to see that his friend receives a proper burial in his
Status In theaters (limited)
Genre(s) Drama, Crime, Western Release
Running Time 121 minutes
The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting
classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic
content many adults would find troubling.
The Motion Picture Association of America rating
is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult
fear that by the time you read this review, this
fine independent film will already have departed most theaters
(if it ever got there at all). With its slow, deliberate pace,
small budget, and lack of big stars, it won’t be around
long. I’m sure that it’s only due to its association
with Tommy Lee Jones, along with its critical acclaim, that it’s
being released at all. That’s unfortunate, because it’s
very timely, as it deals with the difficulty of life on the Texas/Mexico
border, especially for undocumented persons. It’s also a
great Lenten reflection on suffering and ultimate redemption.
But all is not lost. It will probably be available on DVD soon,
where I hope it finds an audience. It’s the kind of small
film I like to recommend, imagining that many of you will never
hear of it otherwise.
Lee Jones directs and stars as Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman near
the border. He hires Melquiades, a Mexican looking for work. Soon
the two become friends. Melquiades asks Pete to promise that,
should anything happen to him, Pete will see to it that his body
is returned to his native town in Mexico for burial.
In the meantime, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a
border patrol officer on a new assignment, moves into town with
his young wife, Lou Ann. On patrol, Mike hears gunshots. Thinking
he is being targeted, he shoots back, killing Melquiades. Mike
then realizes that Melquiades was not aiming at him, but at a
coyote. Mike leaves the scene without reporting the incident.
Melquiades is unceremoniously buried near the town.
Pete investigates the shooting of his friend, since neither the
sheriff nor border patrol demonstrate any interest. When Pete
learns that Mike killed Melquiades, Pete kidnaps Mike and forces
him to unearth the body of Melquiades. Then Pete forces Mike to
accompany him on the journey to honor Melquiades’ request
to be buried at his home across the border.
Jones takes us along this slow paced, meandering
journey home. Pete and Mike meet some interesting characters along
the way, including an elderly blind man living alone in the desert.
In a poignant scene, he begs Pete to kill him, saying that he
would not offend God by taking his own life. At one point Mike
escapes, only to be bitten by a snake. Pete finds Mike and takes
him to town, where they are led to a woman, skilled in herbal
medicine, who restores him to health. Ironically, she recognizes
Mike as the border patrol officer who hit her and turned her back,
as she and her companions tried to cross the border, earlier in
For Pete this is a journey to fulfill his promise
to a friend. For Mike, it becomes a journey toward redemption
for the sins he has committed, not only against Melquiades, but
also the woman, and so many others along the border.
Three Burials is the kind of movie that demands patience and attention.
Like a good novel, Jones is in no hurry to tell his story. Jones
finds the humanity in each character, even the insignificant.
Like Melquiades, every character is treated with respect. Even
though every character is flawed, none is beyond redemption. No
matter whether they live north or south of the border, the characters
share a common humanity. In this stark, barren landscape, the
injustice and violence touch everyone.
Jones also demonstrates a feel for the boredom
of life in an isolated small town. The diner is the center of
the town, where people go to eat, talk, and deal with their boredom
and isolation. Sexual encounters are desperate attempts to connect
with one another in the midst of the desolation of life on the
At the risk of making the film sound unbearably
depressing, it has an offbeat sense of humor. Jones doesn’t
take the characters or situation so seriously that he’s
beyond seeing the humor in it. For example, the macabre humor
in two men traveling for days in the hot sun with a corpse comes
across throughout the film.
Thanks to Tommy Lee Jones for taking us on a memorable
journey across the border. At a time of much political controversy
over “the immigration problem,” Jones plops us in
the center of things. We see the brutality and injustice, as well
as the common humanity.
The Three Burials is a great film to see during
Lent, if possible. Like any journey, it is at times frightening,
boring, and confusing. There’s danger, humor, and lots of
interesting folks along the way. But it ends in redemption in
a way that will certainly surprise and move you. The Three Burials
of Melquiades Estrada is a journey you’ll be glad you took.
Tom Condon, OP