Tommy Lee Jones makes an impressive debut as a feature film director with "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," a haunting, modern-day Western set in what passes today as a final frontier: the desolate no man's land of the Texas-Mexico border.
Patrolled by rifle-toting border agents, this is a wild place, where all kinds of predators roam, and civilization, beyond the local greasy spoon, would seem to be light years and hundreds of miles away. It's easy to believe that a Mexican could be shot to death here, and the local sheriff might not be overly interested in finding the killer.
Jones stars as ranch foreman Peter Perkins, whose employee and close friend, Melquiades Estrada, has been shot to death and buried in a shallow grave, shallow enough for coyotes to dig him up and snack on him in the film's opening minutes.
The first 45 minutes of the film are a layered, intriguing mystery, told in flashback and from different perspectives, about the fatal shooting of Estrada and Perkins' single-minded quest to get justice for his friend.
Gritty sun-drenched realism gives way to a poetic, surreal and meandering journey narrative, complete with blind oracle, in the film's remaining 76 minutes as Perkins kidnaps a Border Patrol agent, forces him to dig up Estrada's body, and then carts the rotting corpse on horseback through the mountains and desert to the place his friend called home.
(Jones as Woodrow Call in the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries carted a friend's corpse for hundreds of miles to keep a promise, but viewers were spared the sight of a decomposing Robert Duvall.)
Here Jones chews up his lines as only he can, the lone hero adhering to the code that judges a man by his character and his horsemanship, not by when he crossed the border or if he has a green card. The righteous anger that fuels the film comes from the actual killing that inspired Jones to make this movie: the 1997 shooting of 18-year-old American citizen Esequiel Hernandez Jr. by Marines conducting a counter-drug operation in a Texas border town. The high school student was tending his family's flock of goats when he was shot, and Marines said he fired at them first.
"Three Burials" won the best actor award for Jones at the Cannes Film Festival and best screenplay for Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriago, who wrote both "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros."
All the actors turn in fine performances, but Dwight Yoakum is particularly memorable as the racist local sheriff. Barry Pepper is strong as vicious Border Patrol agent Mike Norton, and January Jones is impressive as his bored, beautiful young wife. Melissa Leo (who starred as Benicio DelToro's suffering wife in "21 Grams") brings heart and humor to the film, as the truck-stop waitress and whore-with-a-heart-of-gold who alternates her sexual favors between the sheriff, Perkins and her husband Bob. Levon Helm, drummer for the Band, plays the blind man with the radio.
There are many small perfect exchanges: the mismatched young newlyweds shopping for a mobile home, the bride servicing her husband while she's watching TV and slicing vegetables at the kitchen counter, the easy camaraderie between Perkins and Estrada. Julio Cedillo is appealing in limited screen time as Estrada, a hardworking, decent man who dreams of home while living the uneasy life in limbo of an illegal.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges ("The Mission" and "The Killing Fields") depicts an appalling hellhole of a Texas border town, a place of a killer heat, blinding glare, shrouded in dust, a way station of hideous mobile homes and greasy spoons, before the movie heads to the startling vistas of cliffs and desert in west Texas. The soundtrack combines the score of horror-film composer Marco Beltrami ("Scream" and "Red Eye") with songs by Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakum.
There's plenty of dark humor, as Perkins tenderly cares for his friend's decaying body while beating a lesson of redemption into Norton's thick hide.
The strange journey finally ends the movie on an ambiguous note that some may find frustrating. The Border Patrol agent has learned something about what it means to be human; what the journey means for Pete Perkins is never entirely clear. We're left knowing very little about Perkins and even less about Estrada. Was this really home? And where is home, exactly? But it's only fitting that this unpredictable story should end up in a place slightly different than we might have expected.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
3 stars (out of 4)
Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars as a ranch foreman who follows through on a promise to give his friend a proper burial in his hometown in Mexico. Cast also includes Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo and January Jones.
Rated R for language, violence and sexuality. Opening Friday at the Eastern Hills Cinema.