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Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones……….Pete Perkins
Barry Pepper……….Mike Norton
Julio Cesar Cedillo……….Melquiades Estrada
January Jones……….Lou Ann Norton
In the last 20 years, the Western has produced a handful of films that could be considered great. Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves are the two standards of the modern western amongst the rather impressive amount of awful films that have stained the careers of many a talented actor. For a genre that dominates many lists of the top films of all time, it’s unfortunate that what was once an American institution, headed by men like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, has turned into the weakest genre of Hollywood films.
With Eastwood having finished his directorial conquest of the western with Unforgiven, every serious stab at making a great western has fallen flat for many reasons. Costner’s attempt at recapturing magic one more time with his epic Wyatt Earp fell flat on a number of levels and any other western hasn’t been worth the price of admission. That is until Tommy Lee Jones and his directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Three Burials follows a simple story: ranch-hand Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) has been shot and killed by a Border Patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) on accident. Buried twice, once by Mike and another by the local government, Estrada’s friend Pete (Jones) kidnaps Mike and takes Estrada’s body back to his native Mexico for a proper burial.
Taking a cue from Eastwood’s story-telling style and meshing it with the cinematography of veteran western director Sam Peckinpah, Jones has a unique story to tell. Its three different styles for the three acts of the film, allowing Jones to flesh out his characters and develop his story slowly while setting up what is to come in the future; his first act moves linearly with flashbacks set up intermittently to flesh the characters out. Moving into the second act, Jones finishes up some subplots while adding some further development of his characters. He finishes up the film, tying everything together from the first two acts. It’s a well-written story that Jones works well with.
Jones the director and Jones the actor are on the same page as well, as Jones gives his best performance in some time. The supporting cast provides some memorable turns as well, as Jones gets the right type of performance from a cast with differing talents. He’s able to harness a lot of actors with not a lot of range like Pepper, Dwight Yoakam and January Jones (who plays Mrs. Norton) and gets the absolute best out of them. Jones has a story to tell and doesn’t ask an actor like Pepper, for example, to reinvent the wheel. He takes the story and lets those with the best acting talent and lets them craft the story he wants to tell, letting his supporting cast fill in the necessary bits and pieces.
Three Burials also looks crisp and is edited sharply; Jones makes the most of his scenery, allowing the majestic nature of his setting to creep in but not overpower the story.