In Brokeback Mountain there’s a rhythmic pace to the editing of the late Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor that keeps the story absorbing and in the moment. There’s a literal and figurative panoramic quality to the movie, with the latter aptly conveyed in remarkably unforced imagery. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC grasps that the natural beauty of the rugged landscape requires no amplification.One has to salute editor Robert Silvi for his heroic effort in providing structure and coherence to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. But neither the work of production designer Merideth Boswell nor the cinematography by Chris Menges, ASC manages to convey the awe expressed by the principal performers. One’s forced to conclude that [director Tommy Lee] Jones had a specific and determined idea of what he wanted that Menges—one of a handful of truly great cinematographers—was unable to modify.The stamp of westerns on American movies is indelible. Somewhere between one-third to one-half of all movies produced in the US prior to 1960 were of the genre. That fact seems dubious on first glance but stalwarts of the horse opera such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Buck Jones used to crank out a picture a month. For those of us that grew up on John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and every other movie star in a white hat, oaters are a major part of movie nostalgia.Much has been written of their demise. Television is a major culprit in their oversaturations and the double whammy of Once Upon a Time in the West and The Wild Bunch in 1969 went a long way to provide a coda for these movies. But the virtual death knell came a few years later when Mel Brooks ingeniously parodied the tired conventions of the pistol packin’ films in Blazing Saddles. It was difficult to watch any subsequent western with a straight face with the odd exception of those by Clint Eastwood or Dances With Wolves.So, it’s objectively noble and possibly foolhardy that paeans to boots and saddles arrive almost simultaneously. Brokeback Mountain, the grand prize winner at Venice, and the Cannes twice-prized The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada admittedly pull their punches somewhat. Both are set in contemporary times but nonetheless have a bedrock of themes that characterized sagas of the sage set in the 19th Century. The films also share their respective filmmaker’s visions for good and ill.It would be interesting to know what American movies Ang Lee saw growing up in Taiwan. His most recent films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Hulk and the current film strive to marry a faithfulness to genre while adopting modern attitudes. Brokeback Mountain begins in the 1960s as two latter-day cowboys wind up thrust together in the remote title location as guardians of a flock of sheep. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is the taciturn one prodded on to reveal some bit of personal history by Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Texan whose mouth flows as rapidly and ceaselessly as the Colorado River.Both men share a sense of being caught in a transitional moment. Ennis is about to marry when he comes down from the mountain and Jack is passing time during the hiatus from rodeo season. The job is a time waster—unchallenging, other than staying warm against the relentless chill, and tedious. Yet the boredom at first provides each with a refuge. When that begins to fray, the unthinkable occurs. The bond segues into a relationship that includes unbridled passion.Lee takes his time exploring the characters and their sometime ambivalent dependence over the next two decades. They marry, raise families and continue the cowboy way, and once or twice a year find time to go off on a “fishing” vacation. It’s slow and deliberate, yet there’s a rhythmic pace to the editing of the late Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor that keeps the story absorbing and in the moment. There’s a literal and figurative panoramic quality to the movie with the latter aptly conveyed in remarkably unforced imagery. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC grasps that the natural beauty of the rugged landscape requires no amplification. That spills over into the performances of the two leads and all others in their orbit.There’s a prevailing integrity in both film stories but The Three Burials has a less assured technical hand at its helm. Set in a Texas border town, the film revolves around the mysterious killing of the title character, an iterant Mexican cowhand. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga has a penchant for scripts with trinities and that enforced structure seems slightly daunting to director and star Tommy Lee Jones. The opening section unfolds in nonlinear fashion as we see Estrada both pre-and post his demise and the various characters that will come into play in his life and death.Foreman Pete Perkins (Jones) uses him as cheap labor but grows to respect his humanity. He’s the only person in the area at all interested in bringing his killer to justice. The local sheriff simply wants to close the case and the casket, and border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) views all Mexicans as illegals to be handled with extreme force. Less a why or whodunit than a shaggy dog tale, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada drifts for two acts until Perkins and Norton make the trek into Mexico to fulfill the dead man’s wish to be buried in his hometown.The film is hampered by all manner of obfuscation. Other than its concluding chapter it feels like a story yet to evolve with characters opting for easy and obvious responses to considerably more complex issues. The lack of definition or perspective is a considerable hurdle to clear for the filmmakers. The disjointed timeline has less to do with cloaking a mystery than in just maintaining its logic and one has to salute editor Robert Silvi for his heroic effort in providing structure and coherence; often without benefit of appropriate covering shots.One of the film’s most disappointing aspects is its inability to establish the majesty of its surroundings. The ultimate destination is meant to be a verdant paradise, but neither the work of production designer Merideth Boswell nor the cinematography by Chris Menges, ASC manages to convey the awe expressed by the principal performers. One’s forced to conclude that Jones had a specific and determined idea of what he wanted that Menges—one of a handful of truly great cinematographers—was unable to modify, and the film suffers considerably for it.The new west—unlike its bygone counterpart and as viewed in both Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—is populated by flawed people that fudge the neat categories of hero and villain. There’s a tacit legacy to the past but the morality of the tales is no longer clear cut. Even the literal landscape has changed. The virgin beauty of forests, streams and mesas has been touched by the hand of man and so informed, cannot escape the savagery of progress. It’s a sad reminder of faded glory and whatever reservations one has about these efforts to update the western, one can’t refute their veracity or the aptness of a melancholy tone.
Written by Len Klady