The Clumsy Din of Chance

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

3burials.jpgThe only connection that I could quickly find between screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and novelist Paul Auster is that they had a public “conversation” earlier this year. (The promised subjects suggest at best a superficial relationship: “the art of filmmaking, writing, and — yes — Hollywood.” How pedestrian.)

This is curious to me, because Arriaga’s script for the Tommy Lee Jones-directed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is classic Auster.

And I don’t mean that it bears a resemblance to Auster. If you’ve ever experienced The Music of Chance (either the book or the faithful film adaptation), Moon Palace, Mr. Vertigo, or any number of the author’s other works, you could be forgiven for thinking that Auster was behind Three Burials, and perhaps was engaging in the ecologically sound but creatively deficient practice of recycling.

A journey, a matter-of-fact tone that casts coincidences and the incredible as facts of life, the gradual stripping of a major character’s dignity and previous life to find out what he’s made of, the rebuilding of said character from virtually nothing — all Auster hallmarks. From Mr. Vertigo:

“We’re embarking on a long journey, son, and the first thing I have to do is break your spirit.”

In Three Burials, when Pete (Jones, with a subdued mix of sadness, determination, and mischievousness) kidnaps Mike (Barry Pepper, and by the way we’ll be calling the character “Goober” from here on), he could use the very same line, right down to “son.” Goober, a border-patrol officer in Texas and a general tool, accidentally shot and killed Melquiades Estrada — an illegal-immigrant cowboy — and Pete wants to ensure that his friend gets a proper burial. So he nabs Goober at gunpoint and demands his assistance in transporting the body to Mexico.

Like The Music of Chance, the plot of Three Burials concerns the repayment of debts in an unconventional way. In Auster’s novel and Philip Haas’ movie, a gambler and his financier are forced to build a stone wall in an empty field to work off their losses. In Jones’ movie, Goober is required not to make good — that would be a challenge — but to complete a fair (if somewhat old-world) penance.

The burials of the title refer to the literal repetition and increasing respect of Melquiades’ interment. Goober buries him initially to hide him, and after the body is discovered and medically examined, it is buried properly alongside other dead illegals. Pete wants to take Melquiades home to his family, where his body belongs.

Arriaga wrote (for director Alejandro González Iñárritu) Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, and his work here benefits from being less fractured, more focused, and less insistent on the interconnection of everything. It works primarily as a small human narrative.

The conceit is certainly on the eccentric side, but the movie is genuinely curious about its characters. Nobody in the movie says much, let alone much profound, yet their actions speak loudly, and Arriaga puts as much emphasis on the empty spaces — what we don’t know about these people — as the detail work and shading. Three Burials might have even played better with less information; Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo, casually warm) is sketched in a few quick strokes, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the movie would be stronger if we never saw him alive.

The core performers quietly build distinctive personalities on top of what’s been written for them. Pete’s inner life is largely inscrutable, yet it’s evident that he acts not out of self-righteousness but because he’s lost and has to do something. When, at the end of the movie, failure looms for Pete, you think you can see him trying to hold his crumbling world view together. That sounds heavy, but Jones plays it lightly, and the audience infers as much as he implies.

Goober doesn’t have much of an inner life, but his easy acceptance of punishment, and his silence, are far more interesting than the belligerence and boorishness we expect. Arriaga makes Goober broadly prick-ish at the outset and doesn’t so much rehabilitate him as work, threaten, bite, drag, scald, and smash him into something approaching decency and modesty. Pepper — as he is being beaten down over the course of the narrative — appears to subtly transform his face through expression from taut, tense, and ugly to open and receptive.

The work of secondary performers — Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo — is vibrant and feels integral, even though it’s mostly color.

At least, it should have been color, but Arriaga seems unable to resist the worst tendencies of his other work. A subplot of Pete and Melquiades out for nookie gives a glimpse into their camaraderie, but the screenwriter adds a touch that’s nearly unbearable: The immigrant ends up in a hotel room with Goober’s wife.

It’s not groan-worthy merely for its heavy-handed irony. In the sense that Three Burials’ plot concerns sin and punishment, the shooting of Melquiades restores a certain cosmic moral order; the Mexican died at the hands of the man whose wife he screwed around with, which in the eyes of many people is justice.

This casts the film much differently from if Melquiades had sat nervously on the hotel bed with some other woman. God or Writer is a palpable presence here, and the flourish adds an unavoidable, unfortunate, and unsupported level of meaning and purpose to the movie. Instead of being about the story and the people, it aspires to a meditation on atonement.

Arriaga apparently knows the value of the loose end, and that narrative economy does not require him to connect each and every character. In Three Burials, Pete and Goober run across a feeble blind man who feeds them and then asks them to shoot him. Given Arriaga’s history, I genuinely expected that the geezer was the father of one of the characters. And part of the tension is the feeling of inevitability, that this is an important moment in the eyes of the screenwriter.

But he backs off from what you expect, and lets it drop.

The relief comes for two reasons: that something we feared didn’t happen in the narrative, and that Arriaga didn’t force it upon his characters.

But there’s Melquiades with Goober’s wife, and Goober shoots Melquiades, even though Goober didn’t know that his wife fooled around with Melquiades. You will be punished for your trespasses, whether by Tommy Lee Jones or God or the writer. In addition to the indignities inflicted upon him by Pete, Goober gets paid back in kind by a woman for his over-enthusiastic behavior toward her during a foiled border crossing.

These contrivances made me wince in the context of such an observant and character-driven movie, one in which the nonlinear elements can be explained as memories rather than authorial intrusions. But on reflection I saw them as a serious blemish, something that knocked Three Burials from the league of very good movies. Chance is an essential element of Auster’s work, but Arriaga shovels on far more weight than it can bear as a narrative device, and Three Burials nearly collapses.

Interesting post, and the Auster comparison definitely makes me want to see this film. I just read The Music of Chance recently, and it’s a great novel. I’m surprised it was made into a film though, and even more surprised to hear that it’s actually good -- Auster’s prose is so internal, so distinctive, that it’s hard to imagine in translated into images.

Then again, his City of Glass was adapted into a comic by David Mazzuchelli, and that worked very well. So maybe it makes sense.

“Auster’s prose is so internal, so distinctive, that it’s hard to imagine in translated into images.”

Ed:

Really? I would classify his prose as aggressively plain, which is why he was famously pilloried in “A Reader’s Manifesto” in 2001.

I would argue that much of Auster’s work is perfectly suited to the cinema, because the prose isn’t fancy or internal. Most of it is serial, linear plot.

And while I didn’t actually say The Music of Chance is a good movie, I think it is, although individual enjoyment will depend on one’s tolerance for James Spader and Mandy Patinkin. Unfortunately, it’s not out on DVD.

Actually, on reflection, Music of Chance may be a bad example of what I’m talking about. It does create a concrete world and a sense of place a little more thoroughly than in the other Auster books I’ve read. His New York Trilogy, despite its title and setting, could probably take place in any anonymous city, since it’s more about the protagonists’ internal lives and psychological arcs within the confines of a poorly defined urban space. There’s plot in those three stories, but it’s often vague, even generic, and secondary to the exploration of internal psychological spaces. And Leviathan is similiarly internal, even if the skeleton of its plot provides some fascinating material for a potential thriller. You’re right that his prose is plain, even aggressively so, but I’m not sure it’s plain in a way that lends itself readily to visual interpretation. It’s plain because he’s actually not a very visual writer, and his books tend to retreat further and further into the self-contained world of the narrator’s psyche as they go along.

Ed:

Lots of good points, and I’ll agree with all of them except that his plainness of language doesn’t lend itself to visual interpretation. I think the trouble in adapting Auster is the level of abstraction, particularly in works in the vein of The New York Trilogy.

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