Thursday, July 17, 2008
No Country For City Folk
Last night's movie: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
This 2005 movie, from a screenplay by Guillermo Arraiga, marks Tommy Lee Jones' film directorial debut. The film tells the story of a murder in a small town in West Texas, a place where immigration issues are a fact of daily life. Melquiades Estrada is a young Mexican father who has illegally crossed the border on horseback in search of work. He finds his way to a ranch where he is hired on by Pete Perkins (Jones), and over their days in the saddle and eating lunch beneath a tree the two men become fast friends.
Melquiades is killed--inadvertently, as it happens--by a violent, vigilante-style Border Patrol agent (played by Barry Pepper), and the bulk of the film involves Tommy Lee Jones' efforts to bring his friend's killer to justice amid a group of people who refuse to make a priority of Estrada's death. But the story, the first half or so anyway, unfolds with a series of non-sequential flashbacks, so it takes a bit to find one's orientation. Interwoven with this main bring-my-friend's-killer-to-justice plot line are numerous subplots and a Coen-Brothers-ish cast of characters that acquaint us with the rather surreal quality of life in a small West Texas town. There is the corrupt and incompetent sheriff (played by Dwight Yoakam), the naive young wife of the violent Border Patrol agent, and the promiscuous waitress of the local cafe (whose husband cooks in the same restaurant), and an old blind man living in the middle of nowhere--quite literally--overtly waiting for his own death.
These things all serve to flesh out our main characters and to provide the thread tying the events together. In the end, I don't know that I quite buy the film's ending, and yet it finds a ray of hope in a pretty grim situation. Still, we had a good discussion about it all afterward, so at the very least the movie raises a bunch of questions. That's an accomplishment, I think. Immigration is a hot button issue, especially in an election year, and I think many of us come to our conclusions (in some cases violently held) in the absence of first-hand knowledge. And it's not that a person cannot form a philosophical opinion about a matter like immigration; but it's an issue that has much more concrete consequences to some people than to others, and this film makes it seem luxurious to hold views which we don't have to see implemented in front of us. It's much harder to hate a person, a total stranger, on the basis of their country of birth when you must look them in the eye. Country seems to matter much less in that instance. We cannot easily maintain that a gulf exists between us when we are standing face to face: it's immediately obvious that we're exactly the same in every meaningful particular, and I cannot be too critical of a movie which artfully makes this case.
That being said, this is not a pleasant story. We feel for a number of the characters we meet, but it's a grim story in a grim setting, graphically told. Yet for all that, it's a pretty quiet movie, at least most of the time.
In keeping with the landscape of West Texas, the film has a washed-out, dustbowl aspect that reminds me of No Country for Old Men, another movie shot in the same region. Tommy Lee Jones is in both movies, of course, but he plays a saltier, less mainstream character here, a modest man making a modest living whose consuming mission becomes righting a monstrous wrong. The cast are all strong, even when there's not much on screen to warm to.
At the very least, I have a pretty strong disinclination to visit the region.