No other film since John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) has offered so sustained a rumination on the classic Western as Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). Yet unlike its predecessor, Jones’s film seems hardly a Western at all, with neither nostalgia for a simpler past, nor investment in the triumph of law and order, nor contemplation of the redemptive power of violence, nor (most importantly) attention to appropriate forms of masculine behavior. All those aspects familiar to the genre are absent-aspects that Ford’s film embodies in the coffin holding the dearly departed John Wayne, representing the death of Western heroism itself, resuscitated in the long flashback that forms the film’s central narrative. Yet four decades later, after hundreds of reinventions, the corpse of the Western is harder to revive. And perhaps for that reason, Jones begins in a more fragmented fashion, presenting a series of random gestures that remind us vaguely of the genre yet fail to contribute to a coherent narrative. Even the meaning of the central event, the shooting of Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), is left indeterminate. Only as his best friend, the rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), seizes control of these disparate scenes does the narrative coalesce.
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- “Is There Actually Any Jiménez?”: Believing as Seeing in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Lee Clark Mitchell
- Palgrave Macmillan UK