"Three Burials" is two too many; "Tsotsi" cries an unbeloved country
directed by Tommy Lee Jones
starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, others
It’s never a good sign when the title of a movie proves to be more interesting than the movie itself.
That’s not as dismissive as it sounds. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is a mouthful, no doubt about it. Yet it has an oddly familiar cadence, like that of some hallowed, slightly dusty, slightly obscure legend passed down through generations of oral storytelling—akin to, say, “The Head of Joaquin Murieta.” And the film seems bent on both exploiting and debunking that vaguely mythic quality. Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”), it’s a study in alienation, as manifested in its meanest and dreariest forms. At the same time, it’s a spiritual quest and a full-on odyssey, complete with perilous passes, a blind seer, a healer, and a homecoming—all filtered through an ironic postmodern sensibility.
The narrative is fragmented and disarranged, per Arriaga’s usual, but not particularly hard to follow. The title character (Julio Cedillo) is a Mexican who crosses the border into Texas in search of work, where rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) takes him under his wing. One day, Melquiades is accidentally shot and killed by a young punk border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) afflicted with poor impulse control and even poorer people skills. The incident is hushed up, largely through the efforts of the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam, looking suitably weaselly). Persistent Pete, however, doggedly sniffs out the truth and forces the punk killer to deal with the consequences of his trigger-happy finger. This involves exhuming the dead body from its makeshift grave and lugging it back across the border to bury in Melquiades’ home town, all because of a promise Pete made to his friend—one of those “if I die” promises that only happen in the movies. The punk, needless to say, is extremely unhappy to be dragged along this painful slog of a road-trip with a rotting corpse as one third of the company (though Pete finds creative ways of keeping the body from totally disintegrating). Alas, he has no choice. Neither, it seems, do we.
Not that the film is completely devoid of interest. The corpse jokes are sporadically amusing, and Jones exhibits a rare eye for the bleak culture of the Mexican-American border. Cinematographer Chris Menges brings out a harsh poetry in the dry brush and barren hills of the landscape, set in sharp relief against the even starker desolation of the town inhabited by the main characters. Even the town seems to be channeling the spirit of Edward Hopper, as the camera dwells for long beats on blank-faced individuals in a cafe or a motel or a sterile home: trapped in pools of isolation, they remain strangers to each other, even when shown in the most intimate settings and postures possible.
Pete’s friendship with Melquiades is no exception to that rule, which may be the movie’s main problem. Fundamentally, I just didn’t buy into the bond between them, notwithstanding brief flashbacks of the time they spent together working, talking, and shooting the shit. It could very well be that Pete’s near-pathological single-minded devotion to his friend’s last wish reflects not so much the depth of their relationship as some quality engrained in his character—but we don’t see very much of his character, either. At moments he shows glimmers of a deep-seated loneliness or weariness, but not enough to convince us that he’s in the grip of anything other than the movie’s narrative requirements, which frankly don’t suit him. Tommy Lee Jones, let’s face it, has always been the coolest kid in the room, largely because nothing seems able to faze him. His usual air of dry amusement seems muted here, and without it he seems vaguely lost. While this again may be deliberate, it doesn’t do much to anchor our sympathies. In the end, we may feel more of a connection with poor Barry Pepper’s character, certifiable asshole though he is, in the sense that he’s left at the end of a long, meandering journey wondering "what the hell was that all about?”
directed by Gavin Hood
starring Presley Chwanayagae, Mothusi Mogano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Kenneth Nkosi, Terry Pheto
“Tsotsi” is South African streetspeak for “thug,” and its simplicity suits the film that bears the same name. Based on a novel by postcolonial writer Athol Fugard, the movie recounts the redemption of a boy-man known only as Tsotsi, who at the outset, despite his youth, seems to be an unregenerate, possibly psychopathic criminal. One night, he brutally carjacks a Mercedes only to discover a baby in the backseat. Something moves him to take the baby with him and attempt (very ineptly) to look after it, and that process—as the movie makes very clear—shines a light on his soul.
If that sounds cloying, it’s also fairly descriptive of the film’s sensibility. Not that “Tsotsi,” on its surface, looks especially sentimental. Like “The Three Burials,” it evokes with uncanny vividness a particular, specific cultural space: here, the slums of Soweto, where children sleep in stacks of empty oil drums before moving up to the tin sheds of a shantytown dominated by thugs, gangsters, and AIDS. It also showcases a rising star in newcomer Presley Chweneyagae, who displays amazing mobility of expression as the conflicted Tsotsi, his eyes shifting in a matter of seconds from murderous to childlike. But the psychology behind those eyes is presented in far too facile and formulaic a manner—never more so than when Tsotsi recruits a lovely young single mother (Terry Pheto) to nurse the baby at gunpoint. Flashbacks to Tsotsi’s childhood hammer home the parental issues that lie just beneath his veneer of cruelty, and make his salvation feel far too overdetermined. The moral arc of “Tsotsi” bears some resemblance to that staple of high school English classes, Cry, the Beloved Country, yet somehow fails to achieve the same level of emotional catharsis that that old war-horse still delivers. Still, as debuts go—not just for young Presley, but also for the director, Gavin Hood—it’s a fine effort, and may be the beginning of a couple of careers worth watching.