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The Violent Still Bear It Away

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Flannery O’Connor observed that “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.” This is perhaps more true now than when she said it in 1963, and her stories of redemption through often grotesquely violent moments of grace have continued to resonate powerfully with readers over 40 years after her untimely death. Her writing career produced a relatively small but formidable body of fiction replete with Christian themes and imagery and a profound group of essays and letters which (among other things) outlines her views on the nature of the relationship between her stories and her Catholic faith.

poster2.jpgIn describing her fiction, O’Connor once said, “All my stories 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, brutal, etc.” In 2005, actor Tommy Lee Jones (who wrote his Harvard thesis on Flannery O’Connor) directed and starred in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a film that fits this description perfectly. This paper will examine the film both in terms of its representation of Flannery O’Connor’s ideas and writings and as a meaningful story of a flawed character’s violent journey to redemption.

Three Burials emerged from a discussion which began on a hunting trip Jones took in 2004 with Oscar-nominated Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (author of 21 Grams and Babel) and producer Michael Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, the son of the literary executors of O’Connor’s estate, first met Jones in the late ‘70s, when Jones was nearly cast in the lead role of 1979’s Wise Blood, the only film to date based directly on O’Connor’s fiction, which Fitzgerald adapted and produced.

In describing the way his movie is constructed, Jones said, “What you do is you consider some so-called religious thinking without the didacticism of the classical approach. You look for the allegorical intentions of what we’re taught in the Bible, 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.” As with O’Connor’s stories, Three Burials has strong ties to a specific region. However, instead of rural Georgia, this film is set in the desolate country on and around the border between Mexico and west Texas, which has its own immediately recognizable regional identity.

poster3.jpgIn the story, partially-based on the death of 18-year old Esequiel Hernandez at the hands of US Marines in 1997, rookie border patrolman Mike Norton (played by Barry Pepper) shoots and kills an illegal immigrant named Melquiades Estrada and buries him out in the desert. The body is discovered a few days later, and buried in town by the authorities. Melquiades had worked for and befriended local rancher Pete Perkins (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Pete investigates the murder himself and he discovers what Mike has done, but the sheriff (played by country-western singer Dwight Yoakam) refuses to act. Taking matters into his own hands, Pete kidnaps Mike from his home, forces him to dig up Melquiades’ body, and takes him on a journey that is as much spiritual as it is physical; an epic quest to return the corpse to its proper resting place near Melquiades’ home in Mexico.

The first third of the movie, before Pete and Mike’s journey begins, is spent carefully setting up the incident which prompts that journey and the circumstances which surround and lead to it. This portion in particular is extremely non-linear. In fact, it might take several viewings to really pin down the order of events. Jones provides a hint as to why chronology isn’t particularly important: “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.”

nortons.jpgIn any case, despite some confusion as to what precisely happened when, we manage to learn a great deal about the characters here. Mike and his wife Lou Ann have just moved to the area from Cincinnati, and Lou Ann, home alone all day, feels particularly alienated from everyone around her; a stranger in a strange land (one of the key themes at play throughout the movie). She watches a lot of television, particularly cartoons and soap operas, and misses the mall. The couple’s love life is perfunctory and mechanical, and they seem to simply co-exist by default, rarely even looking at one another when theyrachel.jpg speak. Soon, Lou Ann, desperate for companionship, strikes up a tenuous friendship with Rachel, the lone waitress at the local diner. Rachel, it turns out, is carrying on affairs with both Pete and the sheriff, although she is married to Bob, who owns and operates the diner. There seems to be very little else for women to do in this town.

Mike, aside from being a generally arrogant, self-centered person, seems to have two chief vices, and his job as border patrolman allows him to indulge in both. During the long, boring stretches of inactivity in the lonely backcountry, the latest issue of a smutty magazine is always close at hand (and his clear objectification of women in this manner goes a long way towards explaining what is lacking in his marriage).

borderpatrol.jpgWhat he really lives for, though, are the opportunities to indulge his sadistic side when groups of illegal aliens are discovered scurrying across the border. When a report of activity comes through on theborderpatrol2.jpg radio, he races his SUV to the scene and zealously chases the scattering Mexicans down, spewing verbal abuse and throwing them forcefully to the ground if they resist. He even punches one young woman in the face, breaking her nose, as she attempts to pull him off of a downed man that he is savagely kicking.

melquiades.jpgIn direct contrast to Mike’s many sins, Melquiades is almost unnaturally selfless and pure. He is a hard worker, honest and straightforward, and generous with everything he has. He even gives Pete his horse, a rich gift which the other is loathe to accept. When Pete’s misguided attempt to show Melquiades a good time lands him in a hotel room with another man’s wife, he doesn’t even seem topetemelquiades.jpg know what is expected of him (the two end up dancing chastely to music from the radio). Melquiades is a truly innocent character of the type that O’Connor described as “always unpredictable and for whom the intelligent characters are in some measure responsible for, (responsible in the sense of looking after them).”

death.jpgIn this case, Pete is responsible for Melquiades, who rides up out of nowhere one day looking for work and describing himself as “just a cowboy.” It is Pete who will put him to work, become his friend, and attempt to meet all of his needs, only to ultimately fail to keep him safe from dangers he is ill-equipped to defend against. Pete cannot justly be blamed for his friend’s death, but he feels this failure very deeply and it ultimately leads him to take on the responsibility of honoring Melquiades’ last wishes. O’Connor expressed a particular interest in “this sort of innocent person who sets the havoc in motion.” And that is, in fact, precisely what Melquiades does. His death, the death of an innocent man, is the catalyst that sets Mike’s long struggle for redemption in motion.

kidnapped.jpgThe occasional flashback aside, time flows much straighter from the moment Pete bursts into Mike’s house late at night and hauls him away, leaving Lou Ann bound and gagged securely in a recliner. However, the film becomes even less conventional in other respects, as the chronicle of a journey undertaken by two men escorting a rotting corpse through a strange wilderness replete with odd characters and improbable encounters. This journey begins as Pete’s attempt to see justice done and fulfill a promise he made to his friend, with Mike as his extremely unwilling accomplice, but long before they have reached their destination it has become something quite different. The scenario is occasionally violent, often comic, and above all, grotesque.

“Grotesque” was, in fact, an adjective O’Connor was often mystified to find applied to her own work before coming to see it as a natural consequence of her answer to the Christian author’s fundamental problem: to expose as perverse that which modern audiences are used to seeing as natural. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she explained, “and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

excavation.jpgPete has a very specific plan for the retribution he will exact from Mike, and it is far from easy or pleasant. First he must excavate Melquiades’ second grave and retrieve the body, by now several days old. The stench is so overwhelming that Mike immediately vomits upon opening the coffin, and the viewer is grateful (not for the last time) that the “Smell-O-Vision” of the 1950s was just a fleeting fad.

Returning to Melquiades’ modest one-room home, Pete shows Mike how the man he killed used to live, then forces Mike to drink from Melquiades’ cup at gunpoint, and has him dress the body in the Mexican’s best outfit before dressing himself in Melquiades’ work clothes. It seems that Mike will literally be walking in the other man’s shoes. He certainly won’t be wearing his own; Pete confiscates his boots to discourage thoughts of escape before they ride out on horseback just as the sun is beginning to rise.

blind1.jpgThe first odd character they encounter is an eccentric old blind man who lives alone far from civilization. He only speaks English, but spends his time listening to a Mexican radio station because he “likes the way Spanish sounds.” He provides Pete with a jug of anti-freeze to preserve the body, and shares his lunch with the two men. He tells Pete that his son brings him food every month, “but it’s been 6 months since he was here.” As they prepare to ride out, he asks for a favor. He wants Pete to shoot him. His son had told him he had cancer the last time he visited, but the old man refused to go back to town, preferring to stay where he’d lived his whole life. “I don’t want to offend God by killing myself,” he explains calmly. “It’s a problem.” “We don’t want to offend God either,” Pete replies as they ride away.

Now Mike begins to talk more to his captor, attempting to justify his actions and trying to bargain for his release by promising not to press charges. Pete maintains a stoic silence, implacable in his pursuit of the goal. Sometime later, Pete’s horse stumbles in deep sand and rolls over, pinning his rider to the ground. As Pete struggles to get up, Mike lunges off of his horse and streaks back in the other direction, running barefoot across the hot sand. Pete manages to work free and pulls out his rifle, taking careful aim at Mike’s retreating back, but he hesitates to pull the trigger, perhaps thinking of the blind man and the possibility of “offending God.” At this point, he ceases to be just an avenging angel, hell-bent on exacting justice from Mike, and becomes an agent of grace rather than merely justice in Mike’s life.

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Ultimately this journey is more for Mike’s own good than anything else, but he is far from realizing this. Rather than attempt to recapture Mike, Pete follows calmly behind on horseback as the other foolishly runs from the one person who can save him, like a sheep wandering blindly away from the shepherd. But there will be painful consequences to wandering off of the correct path. Finally giving Pete the slip, Mike crawls into a small cave and a rattlesnake bites him on the foot. By the time a small group of border-jumpers stumble across him, he has lost consciousness and may well be done for. Pete rides up and discovers that one of the Mexican guides knows a woman across the border that might be able to cure him. “Can you help me get him across? I don’t want him to die,” Pete asks, obviously concerned.

leaving.jpgMike is still focused only on himself, just as he has always been, and this time it may very well have cost him his life. Back in town, Lou Ann informs Rachel that she intends to leave. Rachel assures her that her husband will come back. “I don’t care,” Lou Ann tersely replies. “The son of a bitch is beyond redemption.” She has recognized the ultimate purpose behind the kidnapping, but she believes Mike to be so far gone that nothing can shock him awake. Pete, however, can be just as stubborn as her husband.

river.jpgAs they ride up to the spot where they can cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, Mike suddenly regains consciousness and realizes he is about to leave the country. Not knowing that he is being taken to the only person who can save his life (as so many others fail to recognize the way to safety), he bites the Mexican he is riding with and leaps off the horse. He doesn’t attempt to run, just stands and screams out his stubborn refusal to move another step, “I don’t need this […] I mean it! I’m serious!” Pete doesn’t attempt to reason with him, he just tosses a lasso around his neck and, implacable as any hound of heaven, drags him across the river, kicking and struggling and screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. This is Mike’s baptism, but he does not willingly submit to the saving grace that is offered to him. Not yet.

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Mariana, the woman who can treat Mike’s snakebite, turns out to be the same woman whose nose he broke earlier, and when she recognizes him she is in no mood to help. It is left to Pete to advocate for Mike’s life. “Please heal him […] I need him alive,” he says. She agrees, but she is not entirely ready to forgive and forget. Later on, once the danger posed by the bite has passed, she pours scalding coffee over Mike’s legs and lays him out with the empty pot. “Now we’re even, cabron.”

corn1.jpgWhen he can, Mike stumbles outside and finds Pete quietly shucking corn with Mariana and the rest of her family. “You want to help us?” Mariana’s sister asks, extending an ear of corn, and he humbly joins the circle, sitting meekly next to Mariana as she shows him how it’s done. All the fight seems to havecorn2.jpg drained out of him. This may well be the first genuine community Mike has ever been invited into, and he certainly never would have expected to find himself sitting peacefully among the very people he used to persecute with such enthusiasm (shades of the Apostle Paul, perhaps?).

knowthat.jpgAs the journey continues, Pete removes Mike’s handcuffs and gives him his boots back. As Mike pulls them on, Pete lays a fatherly hand on his shoulder and kindly informs him, “You try to run away again, I’ll kill you. I guess you know that by now.” Mike nods and adds a respectful, “Yes, sir.” The two men have reached an understanding, of sorts.

Getting very close to their final destination, Mike and Pete happen on a group of cowboys watching an American soap opera, which Mike recognizes as one his wife often watched. At first he laughs at the melodramatic scene of a wife tearfully pleading with her emotionless husband to remember how things used to be between them, but the chuckle dies in his throat as he suddenly recognizes the harm that he has done to his own marriage. He breaks down into sobs as the mystified Mexicans glance at each other, wondering what just happened on TV. They don’t know why Mike is crying, but they press a bottle of whiskey into his hands as he departs. “Take it, for your troubles.”

Now the travelers arrive in El Toston, a town that Melquiades claimed was just a few kilometers from his home on a little ranch called Jimenez. Curiously, though, as Pete inquires all over the town, no one recognizes his snapshot of Melquiades, and no one has heard of any place called Jimenez. Pete is confused, but he rides out of town with Mike anyway, guided by a hand-drawn map on a post-it note that Melquiades gave him earlier. Mike, however, is now certain that they are on a wild goose chase. “Your friend lied to you,” he tells Pete.

“No he didn’t.”

“Sure he did. There’s no Jimenez, man. Wake up.” Mike’s frustration increases at what he perceives as Pete’s delusional insistence on searching for a place that may not even exist, but Pete’s faith is unshakeable.

jimenez.jpgWith the map and Melquiades’ vivid description firmly in mind, Pete finally comes on a ruined building in the middle of nowhere, and is convinced he has finally arrived at Jimenez. Lest anyone in the audience should think that this is just a story about two men taking a body back to its home to be buried, the truth about Melquiades and Jimenez is left completely ambiguous. We must decide for ourselves whether Pete has actually found what he was looking for, or merely fools himself into thinking he has.

In the commentary about this scene, January Jones (who plays Lou Ann) asks, “Is there actually a Jimenez?” To which Jones simply replies, “That’s a very good question.” A little later he expounds further, “I think what’s under consideration here are the mechanics of faith. How does faith work? How does it change the world? From our point of view, you couldn’t say that seeing is believing, but you could say that believing is seeing.” Pete’s faith allows him to find the small patch of paradise that Melquiades told him about; a Mexican Eden that is very real, even if it only exists as a result of Pete’s love and trust for his friend.

found.jpg“This is Jimenez,” Pete announces, as he dismounts. “It’s just like Mel said it was.” Mike just stares at him blankly, almost certain that Pete has really lost it, but then he seems to deflate a bit and histhirdburial.jpg features soften. In an act of compassion and selflessness, possibly his first ever, he looks Pete in the eye and says, “Yeah. This is it. You found it, Pete.” Working together, they set about repairing the stone walls and putting a roof back on the old house, and Mike digs Melquiades’ third and final grave with his bare hands before Pete helps him lay the body finally to rest.

But Pete is not quite done with Mike yet. With the burial complete, he hauls Mike to his knees in front of a tree, places the snapshot of Melquiades in front of him and tells him to ask for forgiveness. When Mike seems confused, the gun comes out for the first time in days, and Pete clarifies: “Ask for forgiveness right now, or go to hell right now.” “I don’t believe in hell,” Mike replies. Pete fires ten times, all around Mike, reducing him to a screaming, blubbering mass, before he breaks into a hurried and terrified apology. Pete turns and walks away around the corner of the ruined house, but Mike continues in a more heartfelt vein, his arms held out in supplication. “I regret it every single day. Forgive me. Forgive me, Melquiades, for taking your life. Forgive me.”

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It is difficult to watch this scene with Flannery O’Connor in mind and not think of the words of The Misfit after he shoots the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find:” “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Here, as in that story, the implied violence of the gun, the menacing fact of death staring out from the metal barrel, provides the shock that breaks down the final barrier between Mike and his epiphany. It strips away all of the bravado and machismo that Mike has been hiding behind and allows him to finally express remorse.

The next morning, Pete tells Mike, “You can go now.” Mike seems confused, “Where?”

“To your wife. Wherever.”

“I always thought you’d end up killing me,” Mike says.

Pete ignores this, “You can keep the horse . . . son.” In giving Mike the horse that once belonged to Melquiades, and calling him son, Pete acknowledges that, as Jones puts it, “He’s been a good boy.” * Without another word, Pete mounts up on the mule, and rides away without looking back (in true Western fashion). Mike stares after him, and just before Pete disappears into the tree line, he yells the movie’s final line, “You gonna be alright?” As a final sign of his transformation, Mike’s first act as a free man is to express concern for someone else; his captor, no less.

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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a very rich, nuanced and often difficult film, which defies reduction to a single reading. As Flannery O’Connor said, “The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.” However, it does illustrate, just as O’Connor’s fiction does, the extreme and even violent circumstances surrounding those who receive the grace to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or, in the words of Matthew 11:12 (from which Flannery O’Connor borrowed the title of her second novel), “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

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~ by Jared on March 2, 2008.

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