Monday, February 06, 2006

Bury Me Not

The other western gracing NYC's theaters this weekend is Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. No nominations for this one, or front page think-pieces, but I predict it will endure as an idosyncratic work of art while Brokeback will be embalmed on the AFI list and air with numbing repetition as a "classic" on TNT. Not to deny it's quality, it's a well-crafted melodrama with impressive performances, but it doesn't seek to transcend it's romance-novel scenario, concerned only in mounting it with a certain amount of intelligence. It succeeds in that, but such success inevitably leads to diminishing returns with each viewing. Ang Lee is no Sirk.

Melquiades aims for the romantic fatalism of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia but skimps on the romanticism. It's an improvement. Tommy Lee Jones plays Pete Perkins, a taciturn ranch-hand crushed by the murder of his pal Melquiades by a nervous border guard (Barry Pepper). It fits the template of a classic Western hero - a loner with a moral imperative to right an individual wrong, it's Scott in Boetticher or Stewart in Mann, except Jones' actions frequently exceed the moral imprimatur. His violence comes partly from pathology, forcing Pepper to siphon antifreeze, dragging him on a rope through the river - the casual nature of the violence is shocking.

Perkins is more lonely than loner - talking and grooming Mel's corpse along the way, Pepper screams that he's mad, and occasionally we believe him. He's also clueless with women - Scott's distanced chivalry turned into muddled incomprehension - his phone call to Melissa Leo is a stunning example of male self-absorption. And yet his mission is noble - returning Mel's body to his tiny Mexican home. The film takes a remarkable shift during the journey - as we view Perkins from Pepper's perspective, he becomes less a hero than a man living out of his time (Jones' casting in the Coen Bros. adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men is spot on). He's to be pitied.

And there are material pleasures: Mel and Pepper's cabin-feverish wife dance in a seedy hotel room; Levon Helm sways to the Mexican radio he can't understand; Pepper sobs at a soap opera in front of bemused vaqueros; men subsumed in landscape.

A great accomplishment: would've made it into the best of 2005, and I'l l make sure to remember it when I make my list for this year.

Rosenbaum has a rave of his own. Great minds housed in chiseled bodies tend to think alike.

Note: this post was eaten once by, so a fine comment was destroyed. Such is life.


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