1 Star - Troubling
The redemptive path involuntarily traveled by Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) in “The Three Burials of Masquerades Estrada” is a painful one. A pathetic person who seethes with an unexplained anger and an obsessive sexual addiction, Norton is, as his wife describes him, a man who is “beyond redemption.” Yet as fate would have it, his broken soul is confronted with this reality through the loyalty of the friend of the man he kills. This loyalty involves returning the body of his friend to his homeland as he promised, necessitating a third and final burial.
In his debut as a director, Tommy Lee Jones creates an artistic tale with layers of symbolic imagery mirroring a biblical redemptive tale. However, the graphic language, sexual immorality and violence of this film creates an experience which many will find so troubling that the redemptive message will be overshadowed.
Casting himself as the star of the film, Jones plays an older, pensive and lonely cowboy named Pete Perkins. Befriending Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) when he illegally crosses the Mexican border to find employment on their Texas ranch, Perkins takes the younger man under his care. This care involves not only sharing their dreams but also introducing him to two married women in the town with whom they both have an affair. One is the beautiful and abused wife of Norton.
This is the troubling aspect within the film. The vacuous and immoral life of every person in the film creates a spiritual darkness in which even the smallest flicker of light is welcomed. Depicting this Texas border town as a tired, dirty, empty community in which there is no love or faithfulness in marriage nor is there dignity or moral courage in law enforcement, the film sets the stage for elevating Perkins as a hero when he kidnaps Norton and forces him to help take the decomposing body of Melquiades back to Mexico.
However, this is a journey of biblical descriptions. Like the ancient Israelites who passed through the water and struggled with snakes in the wilderness, Perkins and Norton cross the Rio Grande and encounter the diamond back rattlers of the desert. Forced to care for the body of the man he killed, Norton is confronted with the consequences of his deed. Facing death himself and recognizing the loyal caring that a friend could show, Norton begins a process which begins his redemption.
Perhaps it could be true that some communities could sink into such an abyss as this film presents, where there is no moral fiber or religious presence. If this is true, then perhaps all we can hope for is that such people would keep their promises to their friends as basic as the commitment to take a friend’s body back home to be buried. But for those who know the true message of redemption, this is merely a shadow of the light that can shine in people’s lives.
- The weaving of past and present at the beginning of the film is a technique which allows character development and plot to be a single fabric. Did you find it distracting or engaging?
- Why do you think Norton and his wife, Lou Ann (January Jones), have entered into this dance of abuse and denial, obsession and adultery? Does the film give us any hints?
- When Perkins forces Norton to ask Melquiades’ forgiveness, do you think it became genuine? Can you force someone to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness? Do you think he had truly begun to care for Perkins when he yelled to him to ask if he was going to be alright?
- When the woman Norton beat up became the healer of his snakebite, how did you feel when she poured scalding coffee on him and hit his nose with the pot? Did you enjoy the vicarious vengeance or feel sorry for both?