Beyond the Multiplex

Tommy Lee Jones on his striking, darkly funny directorial debut. Plus: Two movies tailor-made for fans of the truly peculiar.

Published December 15, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

If I ever interview Tommy Lee Jones again, I'm going to try to outdress him. This won't be easy, because I don't own, and never have owned, the clothes that would permit me to do that. Many people in the movie business affect a studied casualness -- I once interviewed Nick Nolte when he was wearing a turquoise surgical smock and glasses stuck together at the nose with Scotch tape -- but not Jones.

He shows up for our interview in a Manhattan hotel wearing an exquisitely tailored pinstripe suit and pearl-gray tie. Coupled with his mellifluous West Texas accent, this makes Jones look more like the CEO of an oil company -- or, say, the president of the United States -- than a gruff 'n' growly character actor who's played several dozen federal marshals, prison wardens, military officers and other morally ambiguous authority figures.

But then, one of the things that has made Jones such a potent screen presence -- along with his deadpan delivery and weathered Mt. Rushmore visage -- is the fact that he's an unclassifiable, sui generis figure in real life. Born into an ordinary Anglo family in rural West Texas (although he's of partly Cherokee ancestry), Jones was something of a golden boy, attending a prestigious boys school in Dallas and then Harvard, both on scholarships. His roommates in Cambridge included John Lithgow and Al Gore, who remains his close friend. He played on the offensive line for the Harvard football team that rallied furiously to tie Yale in 1968, one of the most famous games in that storied rivalry.

Given that background, Jones could well have been expected to end up in business, law or politics, wearing $3,000 suits and charming or intimidating various grades of lesser mortals with that voice. Instead, he launched himself into showbiz immediately after graduating from Harvard, acting on the New York stage and in television before getting his first movie role in 1970, in "Love Story." After 35 years as a pop-culture fixture, with an Academy Award for "The Fugitive" in 1993 and a serious payday for his roles alongside Will Smith in the "Men in Black" franchise along the way, Jones has finally moved behind the camera.

Jones actually directed a TV film for Ted Turner in 1995 ("The Good Old Boys"), but "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is clearly his coming-out party as a filmmaker, and it's a striking if not altogether surprising event. Big in both scale and ambition (and a thoroughly independent production by anybody's standard), the film is a social comedy about the ambiguities of the Texas-Mexico border region and also a laconic, masculine odyssey into the hinterland between the two nations, between life and death, between identity and disintegration.

As you'd expect, Jones has a marvelous eye for acting and for the gritty, seriocomic touches that make the town of Van Horn, Texas, feel both wide open and claustrophobic. What you might not expect is the persistent strain of dark humor that runs through the film, or the cut-up chronology that will make you work to string the story's narrative together. (This last may well be the influence of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who scripted "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" for director Alejandro González Iñárritu.)

The influence of Sam Peckinpah, and also of Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa, on the spectacular wide-screen images of the Texan-Mexican desert captured by Jones and cinematographer Chris Menges has been universally noted. But "The Three Burials" strikes me in the end as more a blend of literary and mythological ingredients, as Jones largely acknowledges. Jones himself gives a memorably precise performance as Pete Perkins, a ranch hand who has promised his undocumented Mexican co-worker, the eponymous Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo), that if anything happens to Melquiades, Pete won't allow him to be buried "among the billboards" (i.e., in the United States). I think it's giving nothing away to tell you that Melquiades is shot by an amped-up Border Patrol officer named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), whose quality time with the women of Hustler magazine is rudely interrupted by what he thinks are shots fired in his direction. As we skip forward and backward in time, Pete begins to work out what has happened to his friend, Mike and his superiors try to cover up the crime, and what passes for Van Horn's community is dragged into the drama.

Jones' cast includes a wonderful performance by Melissa Leo as the town's archetypal truck-stop waitress, January Jones as Mike's lovely but supremely alienated wife (who knows Melquiades a little better than she's likely to let on), and Dwight Yoakam, sporting a pencil-thin mustache and a series of unflattering shirts, as Van Horn's eternally frustrated sheriff. Jones and Arriaga never surrender the farcical elements of this story, but all these characters eventually move toward something like escape or redemption or at least momentary grace.

For Pete and Mike, the journey is a bit more literal: Pete forces Mike to disinter Melquiades' increasingly unpleasant remains, and accompany him on horseback across the Rio Grande to the Mexican state of Coahuila, where he hopes to find the dead man's wife and hometown. There's a bit of Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses" and a bit of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" in this voyage, not least in the fact that its true purpose and destination become ever less clear. If Mike comes close to death and must depend on Mexicans he has previously brutalized, Jones' Pete must also face his own terrible loneliness, and learn that he never knew his dead best friend well at all.

If "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" has some languid patches, it's also a work of uncommon maturity and remarkable poetry. More actors, I suspect, should wait 35 years before directing their first feature. Hell, more directors should too.

Jones has the reputation of being a difficult interview subject, and it's true that he made no small talk and never tried to befriend me or flatter my intelligence. I didn't mind; sometimes it's fun to chat with these people as if they were really your friends, but it's largely a waste of time. He answered my questions clearly and thoughtfully, in the manner of a man conducting his business. On the whole, that makes the transaction cleaner; as Janet Malcolm has observed, the journalistic interview is "a special, artificial exercise in influence and counterinfluence, with an implicit antagonistic tendency," which only masquerades as friendly conversation.

Even when he essentially suggested that I was a weedy New York intellectual who never went outdoors, I suppressed the instinct to protest. What was I going to say? "Hey, I took my kids to Central Park yesterday, dammit!" One could suggest that nobody who discusses his own film as an allegorical or symbolic narrative is in a position to call others overly brainy. That's the thing with Tommy Lee Jones, I guess: You can't outdress him and you can't out-cowboy him.

Given your track record as an actor, you presumably could have made a lot of deals to direct all kinds of movies. This movie happened totally outside the normal Hollywood dealmaking process. Can you explain how that came about?

Guillermo Arriaga and I are hunting buddies, and we both work in the motion picture business. [At this point he gets up to adjust a crooked picture on the wall: "Isn't that maddening?"] And we decided to make a movie. The co-producer's name is Michael Fitzgerald, and he too was a hunting buddy at the time. I don't direct movies for a living. My motivation is a simple desire to satisfy my lust for creative control. So the premise was, we'll make any movie we want to, if we make one at all. And we'll control it, if we make one at all.

We began to consider the things that we had in common. Arriaga likes to make movies about his country and its history; I want to make movies about my country and its history. If you spend much time along the river [i.e., the Rio Grande], you understand that in many ways the two countries are the same. That clearly became the background.

And you were inspired to some extent by a real event, the killing of Esequiel Hernandez Jr. near the border in 1997, right?

We were interested in making a study of social contrasts, a consideration of how things are the same on both sides of the river and how they might be different. And what the emotional, psychological, social implications are of running a border through the middle of a culture and calling it two cultures and enforcing the difference with the threat of violence, under penalty of law. A consideration of that was something Arriaga and I certainly had in common.

Now, in that [Hernandez] case, a kid was killed, a citizen of the United States, some years ago. A kid from a Hispanic family. Their house was less than a mile north of the river. He was killed by the United States Marines, and they got away with it. No one was ever prosecuted; there was no trial. The family was paid some money. I think a lot of people were insulted by that. We didn't make a movie about that, we didn't make a documentary. But, yes, there are some social implications in that incident that we felt might be relevant to our story.

At least superficially, there's a strong similarity between what happened to him and what happens to Melquiades in the film.

I wouldn't call it superficial. The two incidents have a great deal in common. This kid was a pitcher on the baseball team. He did his homework every night. He happened to belong to a Hispanic family, like a lot of people in that region. And like a lot of families over the last 300 years, they keep goats. And like many generations of boys, it was his job to watch the goats. He would turn them loose in the afternoon so they could browse, and then put them back up. He often carried a .22-caliber rifle with him to protect the goats from coyotes, and he took a shot at what he thought was a coyote. They happened to be three Marines in camouflage, on a stakeout. They had been there for a long time. Watching out for dangerous drug smugglers. And when they heard the report of the .22, they decided that they were taking fire. And they stalked the kid for 30 minutes, and then shot him dead. And then disappeared. They stood over him and watched him bleed to death, and managed to call for a helicopter, which had a hard time finding them.

You say you see the two cultures, in Texas and Mexico, as essentially the same. That in itself is kind of a political statement, isn't it? I mean, a lot of people on both sides of the border -- well, certainly on this side -- would disagree.

It's things that are, at least, obvious to me: the food, language, music, spirit, culture. There's gonna be people who live north of us, like maybe in Oklahoma City, or even a senator from Texas, who are going to say our borders are hemorrhaging. There are those, I agree, who would be somewhat paranoid about people sneaking across the river to take our jobs and bloat our school rolls and maybe even blow up our office buildings.

Doesn't our president come from that part of Texas, at least officially?

No, he comes from Maine or Connecticut.

Well, he says he comes from Midland. You're not buying that.

Not at all. I come from Midland.

There are a lot of things that conventional movies do that this movie doesn't do. For instance, we don't learn anything, really, about Pete's life story -- has he been married, does he have family, that kind of thing. I'm not even sure we really know what the basis of his friendship with Melquiades is, which inspires such incredible loyalty.

Well, they're friends. They work together. It was never problematic for me. I know a lot of cowboys and I've done a little work on ranches with cattle, and those people become your friends, and keep their word. Back story [long pause] -- this movie's not interested in explaining things that you can see. If that makes any sense.

Well, Pete, on the one hand, is a self-sufficient character, a familiar Western figure. On the other hand, as the story goes along, we come to understand what a profoundly lonely man he is. Is that fair?

Right. Look, the movie has a very old narrative form. The journey, the quest, whatever. The odyssey. The idea is that you have a hero, Mr. Hero. And he starts in a rather mundane place, possibly even an evil place. And circumstances conspire to compel him to take a journey wherein he travels through various other places, some of them threatening or dangerous, some of them funny, some of them mysterious, all of them arduous, until ultimately he arrives at a good place, where he knows who he is and is able to relate more gracefully to the world around him. It's a very old story. We thought it would serve us well.

Probably as a requisite, our characters who start out rather mundane take on some kind of allegorical, maybe metaphorical aspect as they travel along. They remain specific, but they begin to stand for things, they begin to mean more than what they appear to be. As we go along, we look at alienation from more than one angle. We begin to think, as we sit in the audience -- if we do think -- that swimming the river is not the only way to become an alien. Most of the characters are alienated or lonely. It's the theme of the movie.

Yeah, the characters in Van Horn seem alone too. The waitress who Melissa Leo plays, the young woman [played by January Jones] who's married to Barry Pepper's character. They seem like aliens without even leaving home.

Well, the girl [Jones] does! She gets on a golden bus, and sweeps the screen. She leaves. But it has been part of her life to be entirely alone at the shopping mall, and those are things I wanted to dramatize and photograph.

You know, in Western history, there's this contrast between the myth of the West -- the idea of the self-sufficient man, carving out his homestead in the wilderness -- with the reality that the West was largely settled in communities, anchored by women who had very difficult lives. It almost seems like your movie observes both sides of this dichotomy: We start with a comic portrait of a community, and then leave on this mythic, masculine journey. Was that deliberate?

No, I don't think about the myth of the West. It's not the kind of thinking I do. That's more suited to people who live in big towns on the West Coast or East Coast, people who stay under a roof, in a room, all the time.

OK. One of the things that may be difficult to convey to readers about your film is that it's very funny.

Good! That's very important. I'm glad to hear you say that.

Some of the humor may disturb some viewers -- let's say, when Melquiades is being eaten by ants, or when you embalm him with a jug of antifreeze -- but there's persistent comedy, even as the journey becomes more arduous and more mysterious.

Absolutely. There's some thinking to do and some allegories to contemplate, some horrible things and scary things -- and humor makes all of that work better. All of that makes humor funnier; there's just more grist for the mill. I've always been nervous at these screenings as to when somebody's gonna laugh first, because an audience doesn't really know that it's OK to laugh. You have to write them a license. Something has to get the ball rolling. I've argued for hiring a designated laugher to go to each screening. When the first opportunity comes, they giggle. Then the next time, they laugh more energetically, just to infect the audience with humor, get them going. Once they get started, they'll laugh, and the designated laugher can go on to the next screening. He just needs to be there the first 15-20 minutes. We didn't have the budget for it.

Were you and Arriaga thinking specifically about the different ways that North American culture and Mexican culture deal with death?

Well, sure. The Mexicans have a holiday called the Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead]. They have a different relationship to death than Anglo society does. They're brave about it and accepting, there's room in the concept of death for humor. You know, I had a Mexican screenwriter, and if you have a Mexican screenwriter -- particularly Arriaga -- there's gonna be a dead guy in there somewhere.

Most of us who live in the middle-class United States don't see a dead body very often, and when we do it's a major traumatic event. I suppose this too is a stereotype, but Mexicans may just be on more intimate terms with death.

That could be. I think they have open-casket funerals there. They have a different attitude toward death, certainly. As a child of West Texas, I identify with Hispanic culture every bit as much as I do North American culture. I live in San Antonio, Texas, with a 60 percent Hispanic population. My wife is 50 percent Hispanic.

It's clear in the film that you speak Spanish pretty well. Did you learn it growing up?

I started to. I began my academic study of Spanish in the seventh grade and kept it up for the next eight and a half years. I think it was my junior year of college when I stopped. I've traveled a great deal in Mexico, Spain, Argentina. I work with a lot of people who don't speak English, in the cattle business and horse business. We have property in Argentina. So Spanish is my second language. But that's not my [Spanish] accent, in the movie. That's a northern Mexican accent, that Pete uses. My accent is normally a bit more sophisticated.

That makes sense, I guess. Your West Texas accent in English is not the same as Pete's either, is it?

Well, you can tell that if you look at the movie and listen to me talk. That's Pete up there, that's not me.

Talk about the structure of the film, which is deliberately fragmented in both space and time. I really liked it, but you are making the viewer work, and there's certainly the potential for audiences to feel confused. Did that come from you or from Arriaga?

It came from both of us. We wanted the movie to feel like real life, which is to say confusing. The guy dies, and you don't really know how or why. That's the way life really is. Some of the cast and crew thought there was something wrong with me when I told them: "This is like real life. The past, the present and the future all occur simultaneously. You understand?" They said, "No." But that's the deal.

Well, I can't help thinking about Faulkner, on that question and the themes of this movie generally. Are you a fan?

Well, yeah. We read "As I Lay Dying," of course. But we were not making that story. We had our own story to tell.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is now playing in New York and opens Dec. 22 in Los Angeles, for one week only in both cities. It will open nationally on Feb. 3, 2006.

Fast forward: "Happy Here and Now" in a lost New Orleans; "Trapped by the Mormons" in, um, Mormonism
And now for two movies I can heartily recommend to -- well, who exactly? Let's just say those of you whose taste is even more peculiar than mine. Michael Almereyda's "Happy Here and Now" was something of a critical favorite on the festival circuit in 2002, but never found a distributor and has been gathering dust ever since. It's perhaps most remarkable as a sweet, mysterious portrait of pre-flood New Orleans, which Almereyda not incorrectly portrays as a land of wandering, uncertain souls.

There are some similarities between "Happy Here and Now" and Wim Wenders' similarly unreleasable "Land of Plenty" -- in both, a mousy young woman (here it's Liane Balaban) drops in on the eccentric household of friends or relatives she barely knows while searching for a missing person, and in both cases the real discovery she makes is something else altogether. The difference is that Wenders' film is a profound inquiry into post-9/11 America and its neuroses, while Almereyda's drifty, winsome narrative is about -- well, I'm sure it's about something.

Hot on the cold trail of her missing sister Muriel (Shalom Harlow), Balaban's Amelia pursues a handsome Internet cowpoke (Karl Geary) who may have known her, along with a household of willfully colorful alterna-squatter types, including an obsessive music-geek DJ (Nic Ratner) and a Macedonian rapper, actor and termite exterminator (both actor and character are simply called Quintron). She's aided in her quest by her drunken aunt (Ally Sheedy) and her broken-down, ex-CIA boyfriend (Clarence Williams III). All these people for some reason drink and smoke like Sinatra in his worst post-Ava binge days, which I guess reflects their boho isolation. Or whatever.

We haven't even gotten to David Arquette (one of the movie's producers) as the termite tycoon, would-be filmmaker -- he has a softcore porn project about Nikola Tesla in mind -- and just maybe the evil genius behind Muriel's disappearance. Or the subplot about a firefighter (Geary again) who keeps having weird interactions with a dead comrade's wife (Gloria Reuben). There's a significant amount of ambient enjoyment to be had here, from the outrageous cast -- which also includes New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe and '60s activist turned music impresario John Sinclair as themselves -- to the cheerfully disheveled atmosphere. As for what it's all about, I'm thinking there's a deeply earnest "Donnie Darko"-style, just-say-yes-to-life mysticism going on. But that's just a guess. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York.)

Finally, if you were concerned that there was only one campy exploitation film called "Trapped by the Mormons," that unintentional silent classic from the 1920s has been remade by a group of Washington hipsters (now relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y.). You don't want or need a learned treatise on this topic, but apparently Mormons were perceived in early-20th century Britain as a murderous cult that abducted young women into polygamous sexual servitude.

The original film (and many others like it) sprang from this paranoid impulse; the new one, starring drag king Johnny Kat -- no, I'm not going to explain that, sorry -- as Mormon seducer Isoldi Keane, springs from the impulse to goofball around in imitation of weird, old stuff. Director Ian Allen (a longtime playwright and stage director) has lovingly re-created the look and indeed narrative style of silent film -- and he's from Salt Lake City, so if he says Mormons are vampires with hypnotic powers, who am I to argue? I suppose this is a one-note joke, more in the style of '70s avant-garde camp than anything else. But, hey, at least it's a funny joke. (Plays Dec. 15-21 at the Pioneer Theater in New York.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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