Genre-Exhuming: Go West, Dead Man
By Fernando F. Croce

Clint Eastwood gave it a grand Viking funeral in Unforgiven, but is the Western really dead? A History of Violence was Cronenberg's vision of a John Ford oater, I hear, yet Tommy Lee Jones feels no need to bury the genre under metaphorical trimmings. Indeed, in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the actor's theatrical directorial debut, there's more exhuming than burying -- the bones of the entire genre are dug up, and with them the mulish sense of morality that seems to emanate from silent, rugged men on horseback scanning the horizons, a persona Jones has cultivated well before his official "discovery" with The Fugitive. The title flashes on a bilingual card, a Godardian trope, though the art-brut ancestor, as every critic will be required to point out, is ol' Peckinpah, the frontier's poet-psycho, mourning the death of the notion of the Old West of his macho fantasies. Jones' Texan sagebrush, by contrast, has roughly assimilated to modern times, horses and jeeps, music and cell phone chimes, adobe huts and trailers tossed together in the sun-baked desert. Still, savagery survives all around: a couple of border patrol officers take potshots at a coyote that, it turns out, was snacking on a corpse unceremoniously dumped on the prairie. The body is Melquiades Estrada's (Julio Cedillo), the affable Mexican immigrant who befriended Jones' laconic rancher, in his first burial.

The second burial is the official one, dirt perfunctorily flattened by a tractor as impotent sheriff Dwight Yoakam tries to keep things hush-hush, especially since the killer is among la Migra's staff. Ramrod patrolman Barry Pepper, recently uprooted from Cincinnati, is so alienated that he can bend his bored wisp of a wife (January Jones) over the kitchen sink for a quickie while vapid soap opera emanates from the TV on the counter; ready for some self-abuse with a Hustler copy, he gets caught with his pants down by the sound of gunshots, and, frantically returning fire, accidentally slays the Mexican cowhand. The script is by Guillermo Arriaga, so damned if he's not going to use fractured Amores Perros-21 Grams temporal shtick to shuffle past and present yet again; fortunately, Jones has long learned from fellow Space (Age) Cowboy Clint Eastwood that such precious footwork is for kids, and steadies the rest of the journey into a rigorous line past the border. A promise to his fallen pal, not to let him die "among the fucking billboards," and also the chance to dish out perverse justice -- clued in by an amiably slutty diner waitress (Melissa Leo), Jones bursts in on Pepper and, at gunpoint, forces him to dig up the body and accompany them into Mexico to seek out the third, and final, resting place. Surrealism creeps in: salt, then antifreeze, is used to keep ants away from the rotting corpse, and an indelibly wizened Levon Helm pops up as a blind hermit to articulate skewered logic of his own: "You're good people. You need to shoot me."

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a rediscovery of the Western, of widescreen vistas, sandy dunes and rocky formations, and of a nearly Old Testament sense of gutty justice. "The son of a bitch is beyond redemption," says his wife, yet what is Pepper's grueling trek if not a parched Calvary for his (and ours) sins against immigrants to match Daniel Auteuil's grind in Caché? Redemption at the movies can come cheap, and Pepper's healing at the hands of the same Mexican woman he earlier on punched out resembles a Screenwriting 101 flub, or maybe a missing strand from Crash. All the same, Jones' film exerts considerable, groggy power -- a luxuriant voyage of rattlesnakes, cantinas, gringo decadence and peasant decency, taciturn delirium, manly loyalty, worn faces and places. Above all, a view of a degraded world where justice and peace can only be reached through a scumminess that, by crancking up the depravity ante, can blast the filthy air clean. Grave-robbing then becomes the right thing to do, though Jones' camera rides calmly through the moral minefield, matter-of-fact even over a close-up of the dead man's face set on fire to free it from hungry insects. More Peckinpah, specifically Warren Oates tending to the decapitated noggin that will become his friend on the road to hell, yet Jones' work is closer to Eastwood's, men of leisurely gravitas and anachronistic integrity, riding away from Hollywood nihilism and into the harsh poetry of their melancholy.

*

At the opposite pole from the ornery manliness of Jones' film lies the tremulous gender-bending of Transamerica, a less bedeviled trajectory across the red-state belt. Indeed, Duncan Tucker's mild, amiable indie farce, Lifetime through Sundance, suggests a pre-op tranny's cross-country drive with no Boys Don't Cry tragedy, just an abundance of the type of benevolent quirkiness that flows in the regional America of everybody's dreams. Tucker is no Jonathan Demme, though, and star Felicity Huffman (as Stanley/Bree, a "work-in-progress" transsexual) works her wry huskiness like a dray horse to neutralize the smugly reductive cuteness of the rainbow route. A call from the son she never knew comes through a week before the operation, so Huffman, prim in pink while incognito as church lady, has to bail the teenage hustler (Kevin Zegers) out of jail in New York City and drive him to Los Angeles. A graciously smitten Graham Greene serenades her with "Beautiful Dreamer" along the way, but a stopover at her parents' (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) is mandatory -- her search is for personal wholeness, and will newfound parenthood figure in? "I am not cut out to be a mother," Huffman complains, then, to Zegers: "Eat your vegetables." A billboard for tolerance, the movie plays it safe by having a woman play a man playing a woman, haggard to boot. Imagine the actress being allowed to be half as comely as Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto, and Transamerica's unthreatening facileness comes to the fore.

*

Continuing into girly territory with A Good Woman, a bad picture. As in Match Point, Scarlet Johansson is an American abroad, though the one crashing rarefied high society of lords and contessas is Helen Hunt as Mrs. Erlynne, "infamous and poor," arriving in '30s Italy after her seductress-credit runs out in New York City. She sets her sights on young Meg Windermere (Johansson), and her encounters with her husband (Mark Umbers) prompt ripples of scandal among the rich and bored. The would-be Jezebel is in reality Meg's estranged mother, though the misunderstanding is enough for Umber's colleague (Stephen Campbell Moore) to make his move on Meg. An adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan, and, to prove it, Wilde's perfumed witticisms make guest appearances -- "Polygamy is having one wife too many." "Says monogamy." To Wilde, marriage could be so heavy that it took three people to carry its chains; here the author's verbosity has to do all the heavy lifting, since Mike Barker's direction is so lifeless. Lubitsch and Preminger previously offered formalist visualizations of the same plotline, though the movie's lugubrious period handle only occasions the unexpected epiphany that Merchant-Ivory will be missed, for their cultured ears would at least be as scratched as mine by the flat registers of Hunt's voice.


Reviewed February 9, 2006.

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