‘Three Burials’ rises up 

Tommy Lee Jones stars, as actor and director.

  • GRIEVING: Jones.

Revenge in film is a mixed bag. While a character’s need for revenge can lead to blood-soaked, comic-book-grade baloney like “The Punisher” and “Hard to Kill,” when a writer and director choose to explore the darkest corners of the coldest dish — what you kill in yourself when you set out to take the life of someone else, no matter how noble the cause — it can make for powerful cinema.

Case in point is the new independent film “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Directed by and starring one of our favorites, Tommy Lee Jones, it’s a moving exploration of friendship, madness, forgiveness, institutionalized racism and the things a friend will do for a friend. Simple, even sparse, it’s nonetheless excellent in just about every category we have for film.

Jones plays Pete Perkins, a rancher living in a dusty one-horse town near the Mexican border. Through flashbacks, we see the foundations of his relationship with Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), a young, shy illegal who comes to work on Perkins’ farm after appearing there one day, starving and half-blind from the heat of a desert border crossing. Eventually, through a series of touching scenes the two men become as close as brothers, culminating in a quiet moment in which Melquiades makes Pete promise that if he ever dies in America, Pete will take his body back to his tiny Mexican hometown of Jimenez for burial.

Though Pete dismisses his fears, Melquiades soon meets a bad end: accidentally shot by a racist Border Patrol agent named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his body dumped in the desert to cover up the crime. Though the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) wants to sweep the case under the rug, Pete soon finds out the true identity of the shooter. Crazed with revenge, he kidnaps Norton and makes him dig up Melquiades’ corpse at gunpoint. With the body on a pack mule, the two men then saddle up for a horseback ride deep into Mexico in search of Melquiades’ Jimenez.

“Three Burials,” in Hollywood’s hands, would have melted into the classic road movie in which Pete and Mike Norton learn to understand each other’s motivations, with maybe a tearful fireside moment of clarity thrown in for good measure. This is a much more brutal and honest film. Pete never really enjoys Norton’s pain, but there’s also never any question whose hand is on the gun. Though they do eventually reach a kind of kinship, it’s in spite of each other, not because of any kind of artificial connection that grows between them. The simple truth is, Pete is a man driven mad by his grief; a fact plain throughout, with none of the phony sentimentality that might have been foisted on us in the hands of a lesser director. Amazingly, Jones has before this only directed a made-for-TV movie in 1996, but in the 40 feature-length films he’s acted in he’s certainly seen his share of good, and bad, directorial efforts and learned a lot. For “Three Burials,” Jones even partly filmed on his Texas ranch, no doubt keeping costs down on an independent feature.

Overall, “Three Burials” is an oddly sweet film, one that will make you smile from time to time. Like all the great films about revenge, however, it’s also a movie that never gets the taste of blood out of its mouth, even in its most human moments. For the chronicle of an act so dark, maybe that’s the way it has to be.

Great combo: Hopkins and speed
Being a lifelong car nut, I’m always itching to see the latest speed-addicted movie, no matter how cheesy it might be (yes, even “The Dukes of Hazzard”). At the same time, I’m also a huge fan of Anthony Hopkins. Though I had long since given up hope that my two loves would ever meet, along comes “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

Thoroughly devoted to the gadgetry of speed, it’s also a great little movie about getting older, and how drive and determination don’t just seep out of you when you hit your golden years.

Hopkins plays the real-life Burt Munro, a tinkerer and motorcycle fanatic from a tiny New Zealand town. Clanking around in his garage with a bunch of antique tools, the elderly Munro managed to do something so impossible that it might seem like a fantasy: take a 1920 Indian motorcycle (topping out at 55 mph when new) and turn it into a land-going rocket of a machine, complete with a fishlike, streamlined skin and a top speed of well into the triple digits.

The problem is, there’s not a lot of open country in New Zealand. Wanting to let the old girl run, Munro has saved his pension checks for years with the dream of making it to one of the world’s great temples of speed: Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. With a bum ticker and his time obviously winding down, Munro finally makes his way via steamship to California, and — with a series of quite funny misadventures in between — from there to Utah and “Speed Week” at Bonneville, to see if his Indian can top 200 miles per hour. Stymied by technical requirements and registrations, however (he has, for instance, made his own “high speed” tires by shaving off the tread with a kitchen knife and filling in the cracks in the ancient tires with shoe polish) there is some question whether he ever will.

A smart and charming film, “The World’s Fasted Indian” is a sort of love letter to the older generation, who made do — and often did amazing things — with what they had. Hopkins is, as always, great, though his Kiwi accent fades a time or three. He goes at the role with a kind of cheerful determination, which makes it all the more powerful when the happy-go-lucky Munro finally breaks down and admits how badly he wants to realize his dream.

It’s lovely little movie, well shot and exciting, and full of earnest performances. It’s a sure bet for film buffs, and a great time for those in love with the wind in their hair.



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