Dinner and a movie? Skip the dinner.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

This week end, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to defend Texas to a couple of friends from out of town. The questions flew hard and fast – haven’t you heard of building vertically? How do you survive here without a car? Why are meals always prepared for families instead of for an individual? I didn’t have answers to those questions. I repeat what I told them. This is Texas. It took me a couple of years to get used to it, and I have. I am positive that when I make that trip back home and visit my favorite restaurants, I will ask waiters for the rest of my food / coffee / whatever. I will probably feel disconcerted to leave home and arrive at my destination in under 15 minutes. I may not feel motivated enough to drive without a Hummer honking away behind me. Yes, this is Texas, and I’ve gotten used to it.

I didn’t realize how much of a Texan I’ve unsuspectingly become until I watched The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. I felt completely at home in this movie – with the accent, the terrain, ever-present Spanish. I particularly loved the lonely old man who listens to listen to Spanish radio because he likes the way the language sounds. I love watching Telemundo myself for the same reason. And for the fact that someone gets slapped every seventh minute (Ekta Kapoor and Radhika – ladies, you can learn TONS of lessons from these Mexican soaps).

Alright, alright, I’ll get to the point. You’d think Three Burials is a western, about cowboys and Sheriffs and vigilantes delivering justice to one and all on horse back. You have all of this. But the cowboys of Three Burials also round up cows in the middle of nowhere, shoot coyotes, sometimes get shot themselves, speak Spanish, and are quite poor (as a one-time watcher of “Dallas” and sometime resident of Dallas, I have become disabused of the idea that everyone in Texas owns a ranch dotted with thousands of cattle and the occasional oil well). Far from finding true love (don’t even dream of “forbidden” love, all you Ang Lee fans), here, an evening out with the town slut passes for romance. No, the cowboys of Three Burials are not glamorous. Tommy Lee Jones plays the guy to whom you attribute all the “cowboy” qualities you’ve distilled from years of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne (loyalty, honor, an apparently unshakeable sense of justice), because you’ve been conditioned to do so. That he turns out to be all of that, and also mad as a hatter comes as a surprise.

You’d think Three Burials is a story of redemption and justice. If you harm someone, even accidentally, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Barry Pepper’s character reminded me of Matt Damon in Crash. You begin by hating him, but end up feeling sorry for him, even rooting for him as the movie unfolds. But when you start laughing at him just as he’s having hot coffee poured on his lap and his nose broken all within a minute, it comes as a surprise.

You’d think Three Burials is a commentary on illegal immigration and callous government officials. Mexican lives are not worth as much as American lives, or so appears to be the general philosophy of both the Sheriff and the Border Patrol. That the Sheriff suddenly feels the need to visit Six Flags or drive his truck off the road in order to delay his investigation comes as a surprise.

Three Burials is full of surprises. If you love your Zane Grey, Three Burials is not the movie for you. It features mad cowboys, Sheriffs who need Viagra, and embalming lessons you will not learn in Six Feet Under. The best thing about the movie is its sheer nonchalance. The violence, the humor, and some truly disgusting things they do to a dead body (Think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta blows off someone’s head in a car, and they clean the car of blood and brain. Multiply it by a factor of 10 – yes, it is that gross and that funny) – everything is treated with a casualness that takes your breath away again and again.

But for all that, the movie doesn’t quite come up to scratch. There’s no meaningful “so what” at the end of it. And there are too many things that feel completely out of place (Pete Perkins’s proposal to the waitress, the Sheriff’s suddenly sprouting a conscience, the whole mystery about Estrada’s family), and keep this movie from being a truly great movie.

Final verdict: it’s a decent movie, full of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. However, it is a bit disappointing, as all of these surprises don’t really add up to much. Watch the movie to get a taste of Texas and a few laughs that will leave you wondering about your own tastes. And do yourself a favor, please skip the pop-corn and coke.

Go here to read Falstaff’s more enthusiastic review.

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