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Revenge and redemption in the modern West


While Brokeback Mountain continues to outrage an assortment of the ignorant, the nostalgic, and the vehement with its alleged attack on the stirring falsehoods of the Western, another version of the honored form practically slunk into town with barely a peep of protest from the right. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (a mouthful of a title that may account for the film's neglect) explores in its own way some of the same mythology as its honored predecessor. (It pays to remember that a myth, no matter how beautiful, is a fiction, and that in the choice between truth and legend, to paraphrase John Ford, show the legend).

The Three Burials deals with another aspect of the same traditional subject that generates the central themes of Brokeback Mountain, the relationship between two men that may consist of something as simple as friendship or as complicated as love. The movie also presents a vision of the gritty squalor of the contemporary West, not the mythic place of grand vistas and rugged beauty, where the endless distances reflect the limitless aspirations of its people, but a barren land of desert and scrubby brush, where the emptiness symbolizes only the stale vacuity of modern life.

Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the picture, plays Pete Perkins, a grizzled, taciturn Texas cowhand who befriends a fellow worker, Mel Estrada (Julio Cedillo), a Mexican illegal immigrant. Because the film plays out in several layers of time, with the present interrupting the past, and the past gradually explaining the present, their friendship grows in fits and starts. Pete, who speaks fluent Spanish, becomes something of a father figure to the young cowboy, and as later events show, the faithful companion who will avenge his death.

The movie opens with two hunters discovering a coyote gnawing on Mel's body, a circumstance that makes the investigating deputy sheriff, as well as the medical examiner, who determines shooting as the cause of death, eager to clear the case and bury the victim. Pete's stubborn insistence on solving the crime, which gradually grows into obsession, alienates the cops, but leads him to the shooter, a violent, trigger-happy Border Patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who mistakenly thought Mel was shooting at him.

Because of a promise to Mel, Pete forces Norton at gunpoint to dig up the body of his friend and help him return it to his hometown in Mexico. That journey, on horseback and mule, toward an unfamiliar destination, which is also a flight from a posse of pursuers, becomes an increasingly bizarre version of those hundreds of trail drives, cavalry missions, and arduous errands into the wilderness that energize innumerable Westerns. The trip grows more and more grotesque as the corpse decomposes and becomes a meal for insects, looking more hideous and smelling ever more horrible in the hot Texas sun.

Pete's quest for Mel's burial spot serves a number of purposes, including punishment and penance for Norton, who his bored, vapid wife believes is "beyond redemption." Pete grows increasingly cruel and crazed, making Norton wear Mel's work clothes, forcing him to walk barefoot through the brush, compelling him to sleep beside the decaying body.

Inflicting and enduring that suffering, the encounters with others along the way, and their ambiguous destination itself all ultimately transform the two men and their relationship, suggesting that they both achieve some odd state of equilibrium. Aside from its ironic inversion of the quest, the movie then also reverses its meaning, changing The Three Burials from a revenge Western to a redemption Western, a most unusual variation on a great theme.

Its vision of the contemporary West shows the traditional small town as a bleak, blistering burg, set on a scorched landscape dotted with truck stops and trailer parks, where the local cops, both figuratively and literally impotent, care little about the death of a Mexican, and the big treat involves a drive to the mall at Plano. The conviction of the actors, especially Tommy Lee Jones and Melissa Leo as a sexy, somewhat weatherbeaten waitress who sleeps with just about everybody, underlines the gritty reality behind an original, eccentric, and most problematic story.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (R), directed by Tommy Lee Jones, is playing at Pittsford Plaza Cinema.