CANNES, France -- In this festival of smooth, mannered style, what a jolt to encounter "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Here is a film as direct as a haymaker, a morality play where you don't need a dictionary.
"Hidden," one of the favorites for the Palme d'Or, involves a video that no one seems to have made, and a crucial onscreen meeting that half the audience doesn't notice, and then here's Jones with "The Head of Alfredo Garcia Meets the Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Desson Thompson of the Washington Post, who like me is an admirer of the film, calls it "old-fashioned," which he means as a compliment.
The story is simply told. Tommy Lee Jones plays a ranch hand in Texas who makes a friend of a cowboy from Mexico who is an illegal alien. Barry Pepper is an reckless young border patrolman who shoots the cowboy dead in a stupid mistake. Nobody much seems to care about one Mexican cowboy more or less; certainly not the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam). So Jones kidnaps the border patrolman, handcuffs him, and sets him to work digging up Melquiades' body and taking it by horseback to the little town in Mexico where Mel says he was born. "I don't want to be buried among these billboards," Mel once told him.
Flash floods and mud nearly wiped out the production, Jones told me during a public Q&A session at the American Pavilion. There were some close calls with horses on dangerous terrain. But, no, that wasn't a real horse falling off a 900-foot cliff. It just looked like one. And how did they get the shot that seems to show the horse falling directly onto the camera?
"I had my guys drop a bag of sand over the edge," he said, "and where it landed, I said, that's where we put the camera. Then we pushed over a prosthetic horse. We used some animation to make it look alive on the way down. When the artificial horse hit, the camera got smashed and they lost a few hundred feet of film."
But it's quite a shot. And in a festival where subtle notes in final scenes can shift a film's whole emotional center, "Three Burials" has two lines of dialog that reveal what has happened to the two men during their long, painful and undoubtedly smelly journey.
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"Three Burials," which plays here Friday, is one of 21 films in the official competition. I checked in with Derek Malcolm, film critic of the Guardian of London, to get the latest favorites. Malcolm, you will recall, is the former jockey who sets odds and takes bets for the Palme d'Or. He's still complaining that jury president Emir Kusturica of Serbia-Montenegro is clouding the crystal ball. "I heard that he asked the jury to meet every day," Malcolm said, "and then he didn't turn up for any of the meetings." He did, on the other hand, sing with his band in a party on the beach. Meanwhile, with the award ceremony set for Saturday night, Malcolm quotes these odds: 9-4: "Hidden," by Michael Haneke, the film about a family traumatized when someone sends them videos that indicate they are being secretly observed.
5-1: "Manderlay," by Lars Von Trier, with Bryce Dallas Howard as a gangster's daughter who frees slaves who are still in bondage on an Alabama plantation 65 years after the Emancipation, and tries to establish democracy.
6-1: A tie between "Broken Flowers," the Jim Jarmusch film starring Bill Murray as a man looking for a son he might have fathered 20 years ago, and "L'Enfant," by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, about a homeless young couple trying to raise their baby when what they really require is someone to raise them.
15-1: "Kilometre Zero," by Hiner Saleem, the story of a Kurdish draftee into Saddam Hussein's war against Iran.
"Remember," Malcolm told me, "these are not my predictions or my favorites. They are simply the odds established in the betting."
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A week after it played, people are still agreed that Woody Allen's story of guilt and murder, "Match Point," would have been a front-runner for the Palme if it had not played out of competition. In the rankings by panels of film critics who vote in the daily festival papers, Allen is close behind the Haneke and Jarmusch films. The critics don't seem to share the enthusiasm of Malcolm's punters for the von Trier film.
I talked to the actress Emily Mortimer at the screening of the lovely Critics' Week film "Junebug," which stars her husband, Allesandro Nivolo. She stars in Woody's picture, and said, "He's always so sort of down on himself. When the audience was cheering him after the screening, he was waving and happy and then he whispered, 'Remember, tomorrow we go back to real life'."
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Morgan Freeman is here to receive the Medal of the Festival at a formal dinner Friday night, and to present the Palme d'Or at the ceremonies on Saturday. He's also in meetings with South African producer Anant Singh to star in "Long Walk to Freedom," the biography of Nelson Mandela, which has been on again, off again for four years. Now it's on, with Darrell James Roodt, director of "Yesterday," South Africa's first Oscar nominee, set to direct.
Freeman and his associate Lori McCreary are also talking up their company Revelations Entertainment, which is in partnership with Intel to market a device that will combine the functions of a DVD player, an internet terminal, and TiVo. The idea is to find a legal way to deliver and sell movies over the web, at a time when piracy threatens to cripple the movie business. He paints a stark picture: Now that high-speed distribution is widely available, the day may come when internet thieves can download any movie they want, for free. All of the movies will be 10 years old, however, because the industry will no longer be able to afford to make new ones.
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The Palme d'Or awards, preceded by the traditional arrival of the stars on the famous red carpeted staircase of the Palais des Festivals, will be carried both live and on tape Saturday by the Independent Film Channel, hosted by Annette Insdorf and me. IFC coverage from Cannes will play during the following two weeks.