Poor screenplay buries `Estrada'

Review C+


"So far as most critics are concerned, screenwriters, like London fogs before painters discovered them, do not exist." So writes the witty and provocative David Kipen in The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History, a "manifesto" meant to credit the oft-ignored inky wretches who write screenplays. But with credit can come condemnation. That's the case with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the man most responsible for the shambles of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

With Amores perros (2000), Arriaga made a spectacular feature screenwriting debut: a vividly violent depiction of Mexico City chaos, telling three intertwined, chronology-shuffling stories that were edgy and touching in isolation, and convulsively moving when you saw how their characters fit into an overall mosaic. Arriaga's first American feature, 21 Grams (2003), was another fractured narrative about characters connected by car crashes, but a comedown from Amores perros. It blasted a single sprawling plot line into arty shards and shuffled them together with useless disregard for time and place. Arriaga always contended that William Faulkner exerted the prime influence on his work. I kept thinking, Pulp Fiction.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Melissa Leo. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Rated R. Time 121 minutes.

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