All my stories," said Flannery O'Connor, "are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal."
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the directorial debut of weather-beaten actor Tommy Lee Jones, is in many ways a remarkable extension of O'Connor's grand Southern gothic tradition. Substituting rural Texas for O'Connor's South, Mr. Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have created a modern-day Western so hard and brutal as to earn comparison to the cold-blooded Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Yet the story also illustrates the "action of grace" in unlikely characters and unlikely places, bearing more than a superficial ancestral connection to O'Connor's faith-infused stories.
From start to finish Mr. Jones' film is compelling, but in the extremity of his story he goes beyond what even O'Connor's gothic would require. The film is rated R for language, violence, and sexuality, and includes scenes of jarring violence and grimly cheerless sexual behavior (as well as some very brief nudity).
Burials is broken up into three sections, corresponding to each burial of the title character. It begins by jumping backward and forward in time, revealing key pieces of information as they become organically necessary to the story, not as they occur. The time-shifting is not a random shuffling of events for the sake of sophistication here, but supports key underlying themes. The story gradually becomes more linear in its narrative as the central characters become more focused in purpose.
That purpose involves the third and final burial of Melquiades (Julio Cedillo), a ranch hand hired by Jones' ranch foreman Pete Perkins, whom Jones cryptically described in an interview with NPR as "a Buddhist soul in a Calvinist world." Melquiades is an illegal immigrant who shows up one day on Pete's ranch, and the two quickly develop a cowboy-style (but not Brokeback-style) easy rapport that, in quiet moments of honesty, develops into a close friendship.
But, as the audience is aware from the beginning of the film, border patrol guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) has accidentally shot and killed Melquiades. And, accident or no, Mike is a hard man with very little grace in his life. In a way, Burials begins where O'Connor might leave off. Rather than ending the story with a gunshot to the chest (as in O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), Burials uses the Pete Perkins character to force Mike on a road to redemption, both grueling and comically absurd, after the shots are fired. Fulfilling a promise to Melquiades, the increasingly unstable Pete kidnaps Mike, makes him dig up the immigrant's body-and together they transport the corpse, on horseback, to Melquiades' Mexican homeland.
Burials is full of the humorous, odd, not quite grotesque characters that might populate an O'Connor story, and they're used, almost against their own will, to uncover surprising shards of virtue amidst rocky, forbidding terrain.
The film's O'Connor connection is not haphazard, with Mr. Jones identifying her, and the book of Ecclesiastes, as primary influences on the story. "You look for the allegorical intentions of what we're taught in the Bible," Mr. Jones, who did his thesis at Harvard on O'Connor, told The Boston Globe, "and then find some way to have it revealed or expressed by common experience. You'll find this happening over and over again in O'Connor, who was a rather classical Catholic thinker who wrote about nothing but backwoods north Georgia rednecks." In that same interview, Mr. Jones continues: "Ecclesiastes is essential to the movie as well. . . . It has to do with the passage of time. You want to start thinking as an actor that the past, the present, and the future are occurring simultaneously, and God requires an accounting of all three."
Fascinating stuff, to be sure, with ambitions in many ways successfully achieved in the film. But while much of Burial's aforementioned vulgarity is integral to its characters, the film's biggest weakness is Mr. Jones' willingness to push those elements too far. O'Connor herself makes a persuasive case for restraint: "The fact is that if the writer's attention is on producing . . . a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess. . . . He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole." Mr. Jones' excesses distract from a film that is otherwise extraordinary for its concern with guilt, judgment, and redemption.