Sunday, July 12, 2009

86. Actor Tommy Lee Jones’ debut directorial effort "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (USA/France) (2005): Amazing grey actions in life

The more you reflect on The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the more you begin to appreciate what the value-added film has to offer the viewer.

Many have seen the film and considered it to be yet another tale on the US Border Patrol actions ensuring that economically deprived Mexicans do not cross over into US territory illegally. Some US viewers have taken to a knee-jerk dislike for the movie because it shows the US law enforcers in a poor light with touches of racism. It was probably this undercurrent of emotions that deprived the film of an Oscar, while it picked up two distinguished awards at the Cannes Festival (Best Actor for Jones, and Best Screenplay for the Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga) and the Grand Prize at Flanders International Film Festival (an official FIAPF A-grade festival held in Belgium).

If the obvious subject of the film and the non-linear story reminds you of the celebrated film Babel and its border crossing sequences it is partly because both films have scripts written by the talented Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote the scripts of 21 Grams and the Mexican film Amores Perros). If you are familiar with the scripts of Arriaga, you will understand the writer digs deep into people’s actions, their causes and the ripple effect of those actions.

Some viewers have perceived the Tommy Lee Jones’ film as a modern Western. It does have horses, cowboys, lassos, rifle shooting, and a typical Western ending of a hero riding off on a horse to God-knows where while someone you least expect to care about the rider shout “You gonna be all right?

This is the defining stamp of Arriaga’s scripts that evidently attracted Jones’ sensitive mind. Who are we to judge human actions? Can we judge human actions without empathy? A man who appears as a good guy with values can kidnap a man for a moral cause that he considers to be important and cross over international borders with impunity just as in the Wild West in these days when man-made laws, national and international, seem to be in place. A man who does not have empathy for his sweetheart-turned-wife or for illegal Mexicans, who have done him no harm, eventually begins to care for his brutal captor and empathize with his captor's values (is it a case of Stockholm syndrome or a new awakening of values?). A Mexican lady, who had her nose broken while being arrested by a US border patrolman, instead of seeking revenge, saves the patrolman’s life after he is bit by a deadly snake, but pours hot coffee on him when he recovers. A woman, who has enjoyed sex outside marriage to color her dull life, when push comes to shove, chooses to stay on with her husband rather than run off with her true love. A lawman who intended to shoot with a rifle an escaping kidnapper opts not to do so, even after getting the target well within the sights of his rifle. Each of these personalities presents the viewer neither a black nor a white character but a grey one that may not become obvious to many during a first casual viewing of the film.

If violence is considered an attribute of westerns, Jones’ film has its essential doses of beatings, cruel dragging of people by the rope, and shooting bullets to scare individuals into submission. Yet the violence in Jones’ film seems to serve a larger purpose, of underscoring the lack of empathy towards lesser privileged human beings, especially the lack of compassion of citizens of the developed world towards those of less developed countries seeking a better life. The violence actually reforms hitherto uncaring characters. To merely interpret this film as a depiction of US-Mexican border issues or a cruel film would be to miss the wood for the trees.

Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga made similar suggestions in Babel where characters were painted with ambiguous strokes of his pen. In Babel too, an innocent action of a Japanese gifting a rifle to a Moroccan guide leads to tragedies with a domino effect across continents. Thus good actions and intentions evolved into costly mistakes in Babel. But Arriaga shifts gears in his transition from Babel to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The actions of all characters (cowboys, waiters, policemen, illegal aliens and their facilitators) seem to be entwined in the micro-cosmos of the US-Mexican border, not across continents. Interestingly, the viewer will note that each character has a positive streak that comes through in the film—not one character in the film is truly evil (or conversely, a saint) This presents a remarkable shift from Hollywood scripts that loves to paint the good guys white and the bad guys black in character, to the extent that often the good guys even rode white horses in conventional Westerns.

A viewer of Babel and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada will note the emphasis both scripts lay on the institution of the family. In the latter, we have five families in the spotlight. The first is the young patrolman’s family breaking up due to lack of empathy that the patrolman rues while watching a US TV serial in the wilds of Mexico. The second is the family of the restaurant owner and his waitress wife, who is mature enough to stay married. The third is the enigmatic Estrada family, imagined or real, that "seems" to have bonds of steel. The fourth is the dream family of the Tommy Lee Jones’ character Pete Perkins with the wife of the restaurant owner’s wife. The fifth, the most profound one presented, is of a blind man and his son, the only remnant of his family, who he knows will never return to care for him because of a terminal illness. What a fascinating array of different tugs and pulls on the institution of family is presented in this lovely film.

I am not surprised that actor Jones realized this script offered a great stepping-stone for him to enter the world of film direction. I commend Jones for not letting Pete's character overshadow the other mosaic of characters because eventually this film is not about one individual. Jones' film encourages the viewer to perceive shades of ourselves in the film's characters. However, I am delighted that the Cannes Jury recognized Jones' contribution as an actor in his own directorial debut. Further, Jones’ selection of Chris Menges as his cinematographer in the film was a smart move as Menges has a penchant to capture natural beauty in all his films. The beauty of the landscape offers a a lovely backdrop for the quilt of characters that make up the movie.

There is a report that director Jones gave each crew member a copy of Albert Camus's novel The stranger. If it is true, Jones ought to be credited as a thinker among Hollywood personalities as well. The existentialist/absurdist/nihilist novel provides interesting parallels to Jones' film. The novel begins with sensual passages and ends with actions/responses deprived of emotions or empathy. The actions of Pete in the movie does somewhat mirror those of Meursault in the novel of the Nobel Prize winning French author.

It is to the credit of Jones and Arriaga that the film does not bring the story to an ideal closure. While a promise made by a friend to another, even though both belonged to different countries and financial worlds, is kept, the viewer has to reach an independent conclusion about the dead man’s family. Was it real or a product of a vivid imagination? What is real and sacred for Jones and Arriaga are that the film underscores values of friendship, religion (Pete’s refusal to kill the blind man) and respect for other individuals.

While watching the film, I was constantly reminded of the parallels between this film and a Chinese film by director Zhang Yang called Getting Home (Luo ye gui gen) (2007) another story of a man carrying his friends corpse for burial in his native village because of a promise made earlier, defying all national laws. The Chinese director has always claimed that his film made two years after Jones’s film was based on a true life incident in China. Both films are interesting movies; the Chinese film offers dark, social comedy, while the US film presents a larger canvas of serious moral and ethical issues.

P.S. The films Babel and Getting Home have been reviewed earlier on this blog.