Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada begins as a story of honour between close friends and quickly devolves into multiple perspectives of an archetypal quest for masculine redemption and second chances. For Pete Perkins, the rancher and Melquiades’ best friend, Belmont, the local sheriff, and Norton, the border patrolman, each quest is slightly different. And in some ways each character and quest could be viewed as different facets of the same personality.
For Belmont, this is a quest for his version of manhood, one that doesn’t question his authority, one that allows him to be his whining himself, slightly feminine. He would rather keep that femininity and his authoritative role unchallenged and unquestioned. Instead, his role in his questioned at every turn, especially when he defiantlyburies Melquiades the second time against the rules of Pete’s quest to honour the last wishes of his close friend and to exact revenge on the man that murdered him. Belmont’s impotence manifests his frustration with his role as a challenged authority. Rachel, in this instance, acts as the sheltering and comforting masculine figure that he can whine to without reprisal, with complete understanding, however ironic her position as the wife of the local diner owner or her apparent apathy.
The quest of Pete and Norton are slightly different, but theirs is an intertwined, mutual quest (Norton’s being involuntary until almost the very end). Pete is imbued with one of the tenets of honour of the Old West, loyalty to friends, friend’s last wishes, and an eye for an eye, though tempered through years of living and wisdom to exact the kind of revenge and retribution that will teach a lifelong lesson to Norton. Pete has lived long in the world and learned from life, wise enough to realize the realities of border crossings in in south Texas to know that it is a fact of life and part of the culture. He sees it and seems to pass no judgment in favour or against, even when he encounters the group on their way to Texas while he and Norton are on the way to Mexico. They mutually negotiate for safe passage to a healer for Norton’s deadly snakebite and a horse for the border guide. Both view each other as equals and both understand the reality of border and border crossing history to mistrust one another. After all, Pete is a seasoned Texas border cattleman. But he also knows and recognizes that same honour in others that he understands in himself. He sees it and recognizes its value and values in Melquiades.
At the same time Pete doesn’t recognize any immediate honour or code that Norton follows except one of extreme self-interest. At the beginning, Norton is a career government border agent, one that refuses to see other human beings as living and breathing with feelings. He treats them as inanimate objects for him to use for his pleasure, to take out his frustration. He beats and injures people attempting to cross the Mexican border into Texas. He engages in mechanical sex acts with his wife Luann in the kitchen as she prepares dinner. She gets no pleasure from this and I wonder how he does and how he manages to ejaculate from such an objectified, disengaged, and dispassionate encounter. Norton hardly feels anything himself, existing in a vacuum of apathy, existing as a zombie except when he is capturing and beating Mexican individuals attempting to cross the border. Norton is in desperate need of a quest, though he does not realize it, no one knows how that quest will materialize. In the end, though Norton’s quest has been thrust upon him, his was more of an internal quest to find himself rather than to find anything or anyone.
Along the way, they encounter an elderly blind man, alone and lonely who shares his scant food with them, another code of the Old West. But the old man tests Pete’s honour by asking Pete to kill him, justifying his request with the offense he would commit to God if he killed himself. All the while Norton says very little, observing and absorbing. Pete refuses, justifying his refusal with his desire to commit no evil in the eyes of God, either. This may be one of those few instances of Old West honour that Pete denies, the code of saving someone from further suffering.
The midway point of Norton’s internal quest begins as he foolishly fools himself into believing that he can run away clear across the desert without help, without food, without water, after Pete removes the handcuffs. Pete has begun to trust Norton, but Norton does not trust himself. Following his encounter with a snake, Norton is “recaptured” and taken to a healer, the same immigrant woman whose nose he broke weeks before as she was attempting to escape Norton as border patrol agent. Pete pleads his case and explains his quest with the healer. The healer relents and heals Norton. But similar to those on death row who are made healthy before they are executed, once Norton is healed, the healer forces Norton to wake up and face his apathetic and objectified past directly. She breaks his nose as he broke hers.
At the last stage of Norton and Pete surmount one last difficulty each. Pete cannot find the community of Jimenez that Melquiades spoke of. He wrestles with this and then enlists Norton in the illusion of having already arrived to stay true to his honour of friendship and the honour of the quest. Norton, on the other hand, is still fighting with his dishonourable former self to escape emotionally into his emotionless past. Pete refuses to let him, forcing his to bury Melquiades and kneel and pray begging for forgiveness. To force this quest of Norton’s to a head, he is rained upon with a hail of bullets from Pete’s gun whereupon he begins crying hysterically and begging for the forgiveness, begging to be in touch with his emotions as he always wanted but was too afraid and too stoic to admit.
The quest ends. Pete has honoured his friend’s last words and had him buried, and he has taught a lesson to Norton, as only a father could teach a son. Norton’s quest ends with a powerful encounter with forgiveness, the power of loyalty, of friendship, of respect for individuals that are outside of one’s realm of experience, understanding, and psyche.