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Three Burials - Review

Three Burials

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

IF BROKEBACK Mountain spun the western genre on its head with its depiction of gay cowboy love and The Proposition changed things still further by setting events Down Under, then Three Burials continues the resurgence in similarly impressive fashion.

A contemporary western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, from a script by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Peros/21 Grams), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (or Three Burials for short) is a dark, funny and frequently brutal buddy movie with a difference.

The friendship at the centre of the story revolves around an ageing cowboy and a corpse – although don’t worry, this is no Weekend At Bernies set in the West!

Illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedilla) is shot and killed by border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his body is found in a shallow grave in the middle of the desert.

After being discovered, the local authorities seem uninterested in solving the crime and transfer the corpse to a pauper’s grave in the local cemetery.

But Estrada’s best friend, Pete Perkins (Jones), exhumes the corpse and, upon finding out who was responsible for the slaying, kidnaps Norton and heads to Mexico to fulfil a promise that he would give Estrada a proper burial in his hometown should he die.

The ensuing journey across some truly breathtaking terrain is a perilous undertaking that provides Norton with an unlikely shot at redemption from a life that has hitherto been marked by violence and hostility.

Three Burials clearly takes its cue from the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, both in terms of its unflinching depiction of violence and in its portrayal of the chiselled characters who inhabit the rugged landscape.

Yet it also contains a gallows humour that helps to prevent things from becoming overly morbid and depressing.

It is a mightily impressive directorial debut from Jones, whose eye for genre detail is as strong as his ability to really allow his actors to perform.

The result is a richly absorbing character study that also serves as an eye-opening look at a forgotten way of life in a place that’s still rife with racism and anger. Some of the human rights abuses depicted continue today.

If there is a criticism, it’s that the film begins slowly and occasionally becomes confused by its fractured screenplay which drops in key plot details using unexpected flashbacks.

But once Perkins has kidnapped Norton and the two head beyond the border, it steps up a gear and really finds its rhythm.

Performance-wise, Jones is good as the tough but silent Perkins, evoking memories of the likes of Clint Eastwood and The Wild Bunch’s William Holden despite mumbling many of his lines. His scenes with Estrada (especially his corpse) are surprisingly strong.

But it’s Pepper who steals the show to create a genuinely hiss-worthy villain whose redemption is unexpectedly poignant.

Three Burials is therefore an excellent addition to an under-used genre that deserves to make its own fistful of dollars at the box office.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 1min