Traveling Towards Eternity: Death and Myth in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
“Before sunrise she was off the plain and she would raise her muzzle where she stood on some low promontory or rock overlooking the valley and howl and howl again into that terrible silence.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
How does one deal with eternity?
Time’s irresistible march forward is the defining aspect of the universe as we know it, a constant that outlasts all other constants. Even without understanding the exactitudes of the time-space continuum, humans have known it since our very beginnings. Time was relentless and punishing, offering no chances for our ancestors to go back and correct their mistakes. Looking at structures from pre-historic peoples all across the globe we see monuments to the seasons and the stars. These were aspects of the eternal that humanity could understand and put into order. Dawn struck at precisely the same spot at Stonehenge each solstice, and so a temple was built there and rituals were performed because those ancients understood just a sliver more of the universe’s mysteries.
Each religion and every civilization has endeavored to accumulate or illuminate more and larger such slivers, because understanding more might eventually lead us to understanding it all. As more knowledge is accumulated and recorded human existence gets easier and we progress towards greater knowledge and organization. Farmers learn the rhythms of the seasons, fishermen come to understand the tides, and life is that much less a hardscrabble struggle for survival. Eternity seems less daunting as we master more and more, even if the individual people within each society will never know what lies beyond our their inevitable doom. Knowledge gets passed along, and life gets better, but it still ends. The void still looms, even for the denizens of the richest and most advanced nations. One of the most common efforts to deal with that gnawing uncertainty is to mark death. Memorializing someone’s expired form with a headstone, remembering the past we knew with them, and making an effort to live better in their honor, is perhaps our only way to indicate anything to the void.
Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about just such an effort. Set in the borderlands along the Rio Grande, its tells a story about death and redemption that resonates with the mythic power of the best Westerns. Jones plays the lead role, a rancher named Pete Perkins, whose friend, the titular Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), is found partially buried in the wilderness in the film’s opening moments. All signs seem to point towards new Border Patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a cruel hothead recently relocated to West Texas from the Midwest, being behind the apparent murder. Not wanting to stir up trouble with the powerful Border Patrol over an illegal immigrant’s anonymous demise, the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to press the case any further than he has to and quickly reburies Estrada in an undistinguished lot. Perkins responds to this miscarriage of justice by kidnapping Norton, forcing him to dig up Estrada’s body, and lashing both men to some horses in order to bring Estrada’s body back to his homeland across the river.