Traveling Towards Eternity: Death and Myth in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

“Before sunrise she was off the plain and she would raise her muzzle where she stood on some low promontory or rock overlooking the valley and howl and howl again into that terrible silence.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

How does one deal with eternity?

Time’s irresistible march forward is the defining aspect of the universe as we know it, a constant that outlasts all other constants. Even without understanding the exactitudes of the time-space continuum, humans have known it since our very beginnings. Time was relentless and punishing, offering no chances for our ancestors to go back and correct their mistakes. Looking at structures from pre-historic peoples all across the globe we see monuments to the seasons and the stars. These were aspects of the eternal that humanity could understand and put into order. Dawn struck at precisely the same spot at Stonehenge each solstice, and so a temple was built there and rituals were performed because those ancients understood just a sliver more of the universe’s mysteries.

Each religion and every civilization has endeavored to accumulate or illuminate more and larger such slivers, because understanding more might eventually lead us to understanding it all. As more knowledge is accumulated and recorded human existence gets easier and we progress towards greater knowledge and organization. Farmers learn the rhythms of the seasons, fishermen come to understand the tides, and life is that much less a hardscrabble struggle for survival. Eternity seems less daunting as we master more and more, even if the individual people within each society will never know what lies beyond their inevitable doom. Knowledge gets passed along, and life gets better, but it still ends. The void still looms, even for the denizens of the richest and most advanced nations. One of the most common efforts to deal with that gnawing uncertainty is to mark death. Memorializing someone’s expired form with a headstone, remembering the past we knew with them, and making an effort to live better in their honor, is perhaps our only way to indicate anything to the void.

Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about just such an effort. Set in the borderlands along the Rio Grande, it tells a story about death and redemption that resonates with the mythic power of the best Westerns. Jones plays the lead role, a rancher named Pete Perkins, whose friend, the titular Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), is found partially buried in the wilderness in the film’s opening moments. All signs seem to point towards new Border Patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a cruel hothead recently relocated to West Texas from the Midwest, being behind the apparent murder. Not wanting to stir up trouble with the powerful Border Patrol over an illegal immigrant’s anonymous demise, the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to press the case any further than he has to and quickly reburies Estrada in an undistinguished lot. Perkins responds to this miscarriage of justice by kidnapping Norton, forcing him to dig up Estrada’s body, and lashing both men to some horses in order to bring Estrada’s body back to his homeland across the river.

On a very basic level, this is a journey conceived under the strain of madness. Pete is bereaved beyond reason by the senseless loss of his compadre and the lack of resolution that follows. His entreaties to the authorities start out respectful. But the quick dismissal of the case and reburial of the body push his grief into a wild place. He is soon resorting to cutting off the sheriff in traffic in order to shout accusatory questions at him. Under the sweltering sun such pain and anger gets twisted into a desperate plan to take justice into his own hands. We don’t see the transformation, but we are given enough to know that Pete’s emotions result in the (bonkers) scheme to kidnap a Federal agent in order to bring a corpse across one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.

The journey itself does not play out as a descent into madness, though. Indeed, it is only when the macabre threesome begins their journey that the film actually settles into a straightforward storytelling style. The first half of the film is told out of order, a hallmark of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, bouncing between several different times in the recent past in order to illustrate the events that lead to Melquiades’ murder and the kidnapping of Mike. Once the ride into Mexico takes hold of the story, about an hour in, this affectation is dropped entirely. It is as if the film’s narrative clarity has a symbiotic relationship with the mental state of Pete Perkins. His efforts may seem to have been conceived in a state of mental duress, but they lend the film a narrative steadiness and moral certitude that calms the narrative. From this point on, The Three Burials begins to evoke the classic hard-bitten Westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher in both style and content.

The rest of the film becomes a series of vignettes about the threesome’s travel towards Melquiades’ hometown of Jiménez. The challenges that Pete and Mike face are at once spiritual and physical, as they seem to be in many tales about sojourns in the desert. The sheriff and Border Patrol are on their trail, of course, but that threat seems tangential after the initial escape is made with relative ease. The forces of American law have already failed Melquiades Estrada, and once Pete and Mike slip off into the wilderness, the laws of a more ancient and indefinable regime seem to take precedence. The land is too vast and their mission too vital to be waylaid by even the collected might of the Federal Government of the United States.

Encounters and incidents in the desert after the escape take on a heightened, heavily symbolic tincture. First, there is the loss of a pack mule to a freak accident, when it is kicked in the head and plunges hundreds of feet off a cliff. The animal, packed to the limit with supplies, does not even see the precipice before it tumbles, and its final impact comes with a sickening thunck of bone and sinew on ageless rock. It’s a scene of grim foreboding, since it comes at the very start of the journey, yet Pete and Mike push on as if little has happened. Lingering over anything, even a catastrophe like this, only invites further pain.

The party later encounters a blind hermit, who spends all his days listening to Spanish-language radio from Mexico, despite not knowing the language. He provides them with food, company, and (unwittingly) antifreeze to help preserve Melquiades’ fast moldering corpse. As Pete starts to move along, the hermit requests that Pete shoot him. His son, the only visitor he has had for decades, said on his last visit from the city that he had terminal cancer. Without the supplies this son can provide the hermit is likely to starve to death, to say nothing of the psychological toll involved. The hermit believes that suicide would offend God, and so asks Pete to grant him a quick, merciful end. Pete refuses his request, since murdering the blind hermit might put him outside God’s graces as well. To be outside of even a silent god’s protection on a journey like the one Pete has embarked upon would be risking too much.

Such considerations weigh heavily on the journey, which acts, like most great works about travels through an unknown country, as a metaphor for a journey through these men’s souls. Pete and Mike are part of this expedition for vastly different reasons, of course, but the country doesn’t care about that. The harsh Sonoran sun beats on both of them equally, and both are pushed past their identities back home.

Mike takes a beating over the course of the trip, aided in no small part by his own resistance. He tries to escape from Pete after the donkey’s plunge, and is rewarded for his efforts with a bite from a rattlesnake. Pete enlists an illegal migrant whose path they cross to help bring Mike to safety in Mexico. Once there, he is nursed back to health by a peasant woman whom he had assaulted when she tried to dash across the border earlier in the film. At Pete’s begging she saves Mike’s life, but doles out some Biblical justice by breaking his nose when he wakes from his stupor. Such abuse seems to grind away his previous shell of aggressive and antisocial behavior, stripping him down to the core of desperation and confusion that had propelled his earlier misdeeds. Eventually, he is shucking corn with Mexican peasants and crying at the sight of the American soap operas he once disdained his wife (January Jones) for watching.

Pete only slowly seems to realize the madness of the mission he is on, and the repercussions it will carry. At one point, sitting in an open-air Mexican cantina while he waits for Mike to heal, he calls the waitress (Melissa Leo) he used to have a roll in the hay with from time to time back in Texas. He tells her to leave her home and husband, and come elope with him to Mexico. She demurs, saying that her place is in her home, and this seems to make Pete realize that he can never go back to his own home again. He crossed a monumental divide in kidnapping Mike, and not even those that loved him in his past life can join him now. He wanders away from the cantina in a daze, and eventually finds himself trying to comb the hair on Melquiades’ bloated corpse. All this does is pull off a huge tuft from the scalp, and Pete sinks to his haunches in apparent despair. He looks past the body, into the night, and tells his old friend that he “looks like hell.” Melquiades was like a son to him, and was killed in a freak accident. There was no justice for this, but Pete’s reaction, as he now realizes, is perhaps even worse. He has disinterred his friend’s body from its second grave, covered it with salt, pumped it full of antifreeze, strapped it to a pack animal, and dragged it through the desert.

What’s worse, is that there seems to be no destination for this grisly travelogue to end at. When Pete and Mike eventually reach the location that Melquiades had mapped out as his home, nothing fits. The locals don’t know his name, don’t recognize his picture, and when Pete confronts Melquiades’ supposed wife she denies ever knowing such a man, much less having had his children. Mike rages that their quest was for naught, and that he should be released, but Pete pushes on despite his doubts. He is determined to see the thing through, and eventually finds an abandoned adobe house and overgrown garden in the middle of nowhere that he decides must be Melquiades’ “Jiménez.” Pete and Mike put the house back in order, Mike digs the final grave, and when Melquiades is finally back in the soil, Pete demands that Mike ask for forgiveness from the man he killed. When Mike refuses, Pete fires his pistol into the ground all around him and stalks away, scaring Mike into baring his soul. He admits that he killed Melquiades because of an unhappy misunderstanding, and covered it up by burying him in the middle of the desert. Mike begs for forgiveness, and weeps for the knowledge that he cannot undo the wrong that was done. Eventually, Mike falls asleep next to Melquiades’ grave, with Pete watching from his camp on the hillside above. Pete wakes him in the morning, says he is free to go, and rides away. Mike looks at the receding figure for a long minute, before yelling “Are you gonna be okay?” after him as the film ends.

The obvious reference point in terms of both plot and theme for The Three Burials is the work of Cormac McCarthy. Since moving to the Southwest about 30 years ago, McCarthy has turned out a string of novels that deal with the murky moral and physical hazards of the region. Set in the wasting sunlight of the deserts that span the border between the United States and Mexico, his works hack away at the myths of American exceptionalism, human dignity, and the progress of civilization. In McCarthy’s eyes all such constructs are small, finite endeavors intended solely to distract us from the bare, grotesque capacity for violence that lurks in all mankind, and the void that extends beyond us. Humanity is simply the earth’s most proficient predator, and any qualms or doubts about this are lost amidst the eternal absence of a god to note such things.

In The Three Burials, Jones (who is actually good friends with McCarthy) seems to be making his own installment in McCarthy’s Western works, specifically the Border Trilogy. Published during the ’90s the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) all concern a series of trips to and from Mexico by several young men during the mid-20th Century. The novels fit into the bildungsroman tradition, depicting the coming-of-age of these young Americans as they suffer harrowing physical and emotional losses as a result of their impetuous activities. These pains are further exaggerated by the boys’ presence in Mexico, which is depicted as a fruitful and romantic land with a terribly violent and unjust underbelly. The external forces of isolation and anger that haunt any person, are exaggerated to demonic proportions in a land that the young men cannot understand. Each novel ends with the protagonist haunted by what he has experienced.

The key difference between The Three Burials and McCarthy’s work is in the age and perspective of the protagonist. The Border Trilogy is populated by young, headstrong men who believe they can take on life just as they took on cattle, by the horns. The inevitable result is a goring, and that experience leads to them growing wiser to the cruel ways of the world. In The Three Burials, Pete Perkins may be headstrong and act foolishly, but he does not need to be taught of life’s cruelty. Jones’ sagging features and weary eyes clearly tell us that this is not the first time Pete has taken it on the chin, and that may be what prompts his actions. He doesn’t seem to fully realize it until the aforementioned cantina scene, but by kidnapping Mike and trying to return Melquiades to his native soil, Pete is taking a stand that cuts him off from any chance at resuming a normal life. Such recklessness would destroy a younger man’s life, but Pete is approaching his twilight years anyway, so why not go out with a decisive action?

That brutal and uncompromising vision of humanity and the world it inhabits that Jones seems to embrace in The Three Burials, and which McCarthy carved out in his writing, makes these works anomalies within the Western genre. The classic Westerns, such as those from the writing of Zane Grey or the films of John Ford, act as myths and morality plays that speak to the American experience. The West, as Americans perceived it, was an unspoiled land that all of humanity’s best dreams and worst aspirations could be thrown onto. It was a medium upon which the United States would write its message of liberty and democratic cooperation for the whole world to see. The actual workings of history would turn the West into just another sepulcher of innocent blood and heedless ruin upon which a traditional civilization can be built. It is the disparity between the glorious ideal of the Western promise of freedom and its eventual taming and/or ruination that propels the genre. Whether it is a story of cavalry and Indians, or desperados and settlers, the conflict in Westerns is ultimately between the dangerous and romantic freedom of the wild and the orderly but numbing safety of civilization. It’s an intractable conflict, and one that cannot be solved in our everyday lives. Only by embracing violence can the characters resolve the problem, but symbolic violence is not an option for your average moviegoer, so they must rely on the pleasure of closure provided by generic happy endings.

Obviously then, The Three Burials is quite different from the classical Western. The film is set over a century after the frontier was closed and the deadening business of American enterprise went to work on the people and lands between the Mississippi and the Pacific. The West Texas that Pete and the rest of the characters inhabit at the start of the film still bears the traces of its past as a rugged and deadly frontier, but it is too dappled with trailer parks and malls to feel as open as it must once have. The Westerning impulse has been buried beneath the routines of work, shopping, and ungratifying sex.

It takes the shock of real violence to whip the story into the generic molds of the Western, and even then the setting must change. Pete and Mike do not go west across the Rockies on their journey, but south across the Rio Grande. As with the boys from the Border Trilogy, the great unknown is no longer the unsettled lands of the West, but the treacherous and foreign land of Mexico. To match the feel of its predecessors in the most American of genres, the film must leave America behind for its southern neighbor. It is patently unfair to think that Mexico, a nation of hundreds of millions whose history stretches much further back in time than that of the U.S., is a true frontier. Instead, it acts as a psychological frontier, upon which the drama of Pete and Mike’s minds can play out.

The resolution of The Three Burials also evades the traditional pleasure of the genre. The conflict of unbridled freedom and peaceful civilization has been present since Pete kidnapped Mike. He spirited both of them beyond the reach of constitutional justice, and so we expect one or both of them to meet a violent end. Such a resolution would elucidate the inevitably grisly ends met by those who try to buck the system that our pop culture mandates. However, instead of violence being meted and order being restored, we are given a burial, a confession, and an enigmatic ride into the distance. It is an emotional climax, to be sure, but it does not neatly tie off the film and reassure the audience. Instead, Jones leaves the audience with an ambiguous question when Mike yells, “Are you gonna be okay?”

That question brings us back around to the question of eternity. Clearly, it’s a motivating one for Pete Perkins in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, since he effectively ends his own life in order to guarantee that his friend’s body will spend eternity in the proper place. Such a risky action is motivated by the exact same impulse that led the pharaohs to have the pyramids built or Alfred Nobel to bequeath the world a prize for peace. Humans seem to use eternity as a mirror, holding themselves up and seeing how they will be judged or remembered against that endless expanse. In Pete Perkins’ case, he saw that his friend would be forever forgotten, lost even to his family, so he lifted heaven and earth to make things right. In doing so, he seemed to grapple with the eternal questions of human life and endeavor on a journey through an undiscovered country. Jones does not inform us if this is satisfying for Pete, if he thinks his actions had a good purpose. His mark was made, even if no one, not even himself, will ever truly know or understand it. In the face of eternity, that’s probably all we can aspire to anyway.