The people tasked with patrolling the frontier are more complex than simple cartoon villains.
When he set out to direct The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it was clear that Tommy Lee Jones viewed it as a political effort, and he likely also understood that its topic of immigration is unfortunately evergreen. Given the current political climate in the States, it is doubly troubling that this film, though well received at the time. has largely been forgotten. While it wears its politics on its sleeve, such heavy handedness does not detract from its dramatic pleasures.
The film circulates around the shifting relationships between three very different men. Pete Perkins (Jones) is the manager of a massive, border-adjacent cattle operation. He knows that Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo) is undocumented, but he hires the man to work on the ranch anyway. Perkins and Estrada become close friends to the point that the latter even gives his manager a horse. Meanwhile, rookie Border Patrol agent Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) has a penchant for excessive physical force.
As the title suggests, the central conflict, is the fate of Estrada. While the film’s first half is relayed via a fractured, non-linear narrative, it soon becomes plain that Estrada was gunned down by Norton, who essentially gets away with murder. The politics of this dynamic are overt: Norton is undeniably a bad person (it’s the sort of role that Pepper is so good at, as in Kill the Messenger), as even his wife Lou Ann (January Jones) finally realizes, and his rottenness is a metaphor for the whole business of armed federal agents “defending” the border. On the other hand, Estrada is, by any measure, a good human worthy of admiration. In 2004 and 2005 when the film was made, the border was a major campaign issue in the Presidential elections, as it remains today. Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are unequivocal in their support of a more humane immigration paradigm.
But Three Burials does come to complicate this simple polemical approach in its second half. Here, the film morphs from a non-linear whodunit into a road/buddy drama, with a twist. The twist is that there is no road and the travelling pair certainly are not friends. Perkins kidnaps Norton, forces him into a saddle and begins riding south over rough country into Mexico, bearing the ever-ripening cadaver of Estrada, who asked that Perkins bury him in his native village. From here, all sorts of difficulties befall them, with Norton receiving punches, snake bites and assorted other misfortunes.
What began as a two-birds-one-stone sort of effort from Perkins to both fulfill his guarantee to Estrada and to ensure that Norton face retribution for murdering his friend morphs into a journey of self-discovery and personal transformation for both men. Perkins softens while also learning that Estrada was a bit more complex, with a mysterious past, than he had initially believed while Norton comes to understand that he is, in fact, a shithead in need of this comeuppance. The final scene dramatizes these shifting perspectives with the kind of poetry only a Western can muster. Fortunately, this climatic resolution does not resort to the obviously-facetious “good people on both sides” line of thinking of a certain sitting US President, but it does remind the viewer that the people tasked with patrolling the frontier are more complex than simple cartoon villains.