Monday, April 10, 2006

Script Vs Film: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

In an alternate universe, James Lipton hosts ‘Inside the Reader’s Mind’ where instead of his usual gushing appraisal of his guests in his ‘Actors Studio’, he interrogates script readers on their choices to hail or dismiss a script. A fawning tribute to an A or B list actor transforms into a devilish cross-examination that would make Olivier’s Nazi dentist proud. He would shine a light into your eye, tease your finger tips with pliers and repeat: “Is it good?” until you had gone through every conceivable range of answer to try to defend your script report and to satisfy his curiosity.

And so to this week’s Script Vs Film. Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut of a script written by Guillermo Arriaga (writer of 21 Grams & Amorres Perros). This is an interesting one because if it had come through the spec pile, then it would have been singled out for its discerning style and absorbing plot. However, when reading scripts for ‘acquisition’ purposes, a reader’s critique is heightened towards the final product of the film rather than trying to find the development merit in the material.

Ironically, this results in high-quality scripts by high-profile writers/actors/directors getting an unforgiving critical once-over in order to help the exec decide whether he should buy or pass. The script isn’t living or dying on the reader’s recommendation - it’s already made it through the development process and has attracted all the talent so now it’s time to pucker up to see if it’s any good or not.

Here’s my logline: “An illegal Mexican immigrant gets accidentally shot by a Border Patrolman but the immigrant’s friend takes the patrolman hostage in order to give his dead friend a proper burial.”

And here’s my brief: “An interesting tale told with Arriaga’s trademark flair for a disjointed structure but the characters and situation don’t make the story that rewarding or worthwhile.”

My assessment (spoilers beware): “As you might expect from the writer of Amorres Perros and 21 Grams, this is an intelligent and brooding affair about a group of characters whose lives all interconnect in a dramatic fashion. Writer Guillermo Arriaga’s style is distinctive and difficult to emulate as he plays with his structure and timeline to present a jigsaw story where not everything is straightforward or clear.

This kind of drama keeps the audience, and script reader, on their toes as you really have to focus on what’s going on to keep track of who’s who and what’s what. The script doesn’t define itself between the PAST and the PRESENT. Instead, it presents itself as a conventional narrative but as the drama unfolds you start to realise that the scenes are jumping around with their timeline and structure. But while this structure is distinctive and potentially tricky to understand, it is simple and clear in its essence.

Arriaga is a fan of a triangular structure where he takes three story lines and interweaves between them all to present his story. It’s an effective and award winning approach. In this script, the premise and story line is not as intriguing or dramatic as Amorres Perros and 21 Grams but it’s definitely got a discerning edge.

The title gives you an idea on the essential structure of the piece. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada forms the basis of the narrative and the script even captions these sections to let us know how and why Melquiades has been dug up each time. The first time he’s buried, it’s to cover up his murder. The second time he’s buried is after his autopsy and the last time he’s buried is by Pete, his friend, who honours Mel’s request to be buried in his hometown.

There is one additional section to this ‘three burial’ structure and that is ‘The Journey’ where Pete takes Mike hostage and they make their trek to Mexico so that they can bury Melquiades. So, the script would seem to have four acts and within these acts, it focuses on the characters that had a close or fleeting connection with Melquiades before his death.

By doing this, we are able to get an insight and understanding into separate characters and events – Pete’s affair with Rachel, Lou Ann’s brief fling with Melquiades, Mike’s personal guilt over the ‘murder’ and his frustrations at his new job and failing marriage. It makes for an intelligent and assured screenplay but despite its credentials and elements attached, it doesn’t make the impression that was first anticipated.

After all is said and done, this comes off as a bit flat and anti-climactic. The scenes and drama don’t pack enough punch to have satisfying entertainment value and while the attention to character is great, the pace and mood seems to fall in love with itself a little and the story tapers off considerably. There are some interesting moments between Pete and Mike when they’re on their journey to Mexico but there’s no twist or earth shattering revelation about the characters to make the drama truly stand out.

All the revelations and character foibles had been covered before the script’s final act and while there is a twist regarding Melquiades’s hometown and family (he apparently lied about both), the story comes to a close with a disappointing resolution. Pete’s friendship with Melquides was just developing so Mel’s generosity while they were mates wasn’t enough to justify Pete’s quest to honour Mel’s wishes. There just wasn’t enough validity in Pete’s obsession with Melquiades or why he thought so much of him. It’s interesting and alternative fare all right, and deserves some attention, but it’s probably not for you.”

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