The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Where to begin with this hopelessly mediocre attempt at a meaningful movie? I think the best place to start is with the critics. After all, director/star Tommy Lee Jones didn't set out to make a poorly paced, racist film totally lacking in credibility. The people to blame would be those who are supposed to be able to evaluate this kind of material with some degree of discrimination and warn the rest of us away from it. Many of them claimed that this naked emperor of a movie was clad in finery. What was truly astounding about it was the degree to which this film was mis-evaluated. One critic wrote that the film was packed with "note-perfect performances." I'll skip over the obvious limitations of some of the other performers in the film and get right to Dwight Yoakum's portrayal of the sheriff. It is arguably the worst performance ever recorded on film. I'm not just talking about major films. I will include Ed Wood's films, Tom Green's performances, your home movies, infomercials, and local used car salesmen doing their late-night TV commercials. There may be a worse performance in there somewhere, probably by some overacting hambone like John Barrymore, but I have never seen it. Now if a critic sees a 75/100 and calls it a 100/100 that is one thing. We can attribute that to a variance of opinion. But when a critic sees a 0/100 and praises it as "note-perfect," you just have to think that the lad is in the wrong profession. Yoakum looks like Kip Dynamite wearing a cowboy hat, and his performance is so monotonous, stiff and stilted that he almost makes Tommy Lee Jones seem Shakespearian. Tommy Lee, of course, turns in his usual laconic, inexpressive performance, and Barry Pepper goes in the other direction, totally over-the-top as the despicable American border guard who bullies illegals and kills Tommy Lee's best friend, then turns into a whiny, cryin' bitch when Tommy Lee kidnaps him.

On the other hand, the acting didn't really stand out as significantly worse than the script. It was awarded the best screenplay award at Cannes, which is pretty much all you have to know. That fact is virtually a guarantee that a script will take a minimalist approach to plot and character development, will be needlessly convoluted in narrative technique, and will have a simple-minded, negative view of Americans. Bingo! This particular award winner is even worse than usual. Every male American in it (except Tommy Lee) is hateful or stupid or fat or incompetent or impotent, often several of the above, each of them living a dull, meaningless, hopeless life.  Every Mexican is self-sacrificing, gentle, forgiving, and generous, caring for their families, putting in a fair day's work for a decent wage, filled with love and respect for one another as well as for outsiders. Needless to say, there were critics who looked at the film's simplistic black-and-white weltanschauung and praised it for its nuances. If the entire scenario weren't racist enough to begin with, the script reinforces the point by including such lines as Tommy Lee calling the border guard "you stupid gringo." Mind you, that line was spoken by the film's conscience.

For those of you who do not understand how the film community defines nuance, here are some examples:

  • "You stupid wetback spic." Racist and evil. When a character says this, we know he is bad.
  • "You stupid gringo." Sharp, edgy, nuanced dialogue. When a character says this, we know he is our hero.
  • "Chinese people are evil." Racist.
  • "Americans are evil." Nuanced and award-winning.
  • "Black people are evil." Racist.
  • "White people are evil." Nuanced.

And so forth.

Oh, yeah, and then there are the preposterous coincidences. The border guard shoots Melquiades Estrada because he thinks Estrada is shooting at him. As it turns out, Estrada was trying to kill a nearby coyote. The important fact for us to note here is that the border guard's wife was so bored by life in West Texas that she had decided to do some semi-professional light hooking, half for pleasure, half for profit. I'll bet you'll never guess who her first (and only?) john was. Yup, that's right, the border guard accidentally shot the one other guy who was having sex with his wife, unbeknownst to him.

You're not impressed with that coincidence? OK, try this one on for size. Early in the film, the border guard uses excessive force on an escaping illegal alien, a young woman whom he punches right in the face. Later in the film, deep inside Mexico, the guard is bitten by a snake and the only one who can save him is ... oh, I'll bet you can guess. I suppose that the screenwriter of this film just thought Crash was too darned plausible! Need I point out that some critics referred to this as "gritty realism"?

Here's the general plot outline:

A border guard carelessly shoots a man, Melquiades Estrada, who appears to be shooting at him, but is actually shooting at a coyote. The officer basically leaves the dead body to rot in the desert. His decomposing, half-eaten corpse is found by some hunters. The dead man, an illegal alien, turns out to be the greatest human being since Francis of Assisi. During his saintly life he extracted a promise from his best friend (Tommy Lee) to bury him in Mexico if he were to die in America. Tommy Lee finds out how his friend died, kidnaps the border patrol officer, forces him to dig up the corpse, and together they drag the rotting corpse of Melquiades Estrada toward a tiny village in Mexico. Tommy Lee treats his decomposing friend as a nine year old girl might treat her Barbies, dressing him up, combing his hair, and talking to him along the route. Tommy Lee seems to be channeling Norman Bates at times. If you are a Peckinpaugh fan, you may also hear some echoes of one of Sam's films called "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."

Of course it's possible to see how this ambitious script might have been very effective in the hands of a master director who would be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, but as presented here it fails, not only because of the outlandish coincidences, unnecessary time-shifts and one-dimensional point of view, but also because of a simple lack of sensible character motivation. First is the fact that the relationship between Tommy Lee's character and his dead pal is never developed sufficiently to make us feel Tommy Lee's sense of loss and outrage. They are barely seen to exchange a few perfunctory phrases. The one element that strains the credibility of the film to the absolute breaking point, however, is the fact that Tommy Lee never asks his prisoner how the crucial killing happened in the first place, and the border patrol guard never tells him until the last couple of minutes of the film. If they had ever discussed it, it could have resulted in an Emily Litella moment. "Oh, never mind."

There is more bad news. Tommy Lee's sense of pacing didn't help this film, either. The two-hour film drags on and on and on until it feels like four. Tommy seems to think that every pause is meaningful, and so inserts them whenever possible. After all, the more pauses, the more meaning, right?

There is some good news. The cinematography is excellent. Overall, however, it is a film with great ambition and mediocre execution; a painfully slow, simplistic, and borderline racist film - perhaps over the borderline. If I used a standard four-star method like Roger Ebert, it would be an obvious 2.5 - too ambitious to dismiss altogether with a two, but impossible to recommend with a three.



  • widescreen or full-screen version
  • full-length commentary by Tommy Lee and two minor cast members


Melissa Leo is seen naked after a failed attempt at sex with Dwight Yoakum. The actual exposure consists of her right breast and the side of her hips.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a half   stars. Roger Ebert 4/4, BBC 4/5.

  • It won Best Actor and Best Screenplay at Cannes, but was ignored thereafter.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. The film grossed $5 million in an arthouse run which maxed out at 350 theaters.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C-.  It obviously has its defenders. In fact, most critics liked it and the IMDb rating is an impressive 7.9 - good enough to make the Top 250 if it gets enough votes!

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