3½ stars (out of four)
Two ripe acts of dramatic wishful thinking lie at the center of Tommy Lee Jones' fascinating and unpredictable feature film directorial debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." One involves old-fashioned vigilante justice, by which a West Texas cattle rancher, played by Jones in his most vivid performance in years, avenges the murder of his friend, the undocumented Mexican of the title. The other instance of wishful thinking posits what, in a poetically just world, might happen if a brutish U.S. border guard got what he had coming and redeemed his soul in the bargain.
This is what screenwriters and directors do for a living: They engage in wishful thinking and try to make the wishes and what-ifs come to life on screen. "The Three Burials" is not interested in docu-dramatic realism, or a Minuteman militia take on our porous, controversial U.S./Mexico divide. True to its western genre roots, the film's archetypes are boldly drawn. Some of the dramatic reversals risk hokiness.
But Jones' film actually takes you somewhere you haven't visited in a million other movies. It has a wonderful sense of place, and space, and carries the bite and tang of a good short story. Whereas "Brokeback Mountain," the other big-sky item out there at the moment, was an excellent short story turned into a fine, though slightly inflated, film, "The Three Burials" feels neither too small nor too large. It is both a simple fable and a canny moral odyssey, and if that sounds too highbrow, just call it a western. Or a southwestern.
Behind a downward-curving mustache, Jones portrays rancher Pete Perkins, the employer and comrade of young, even-tempered cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), who is trying to earn enough money to return to his family in Coahuila, Mexico. Estrada has not seen his wife or children in years. Early in the picture, he is shot and killed by border patrol rookie Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, the sharpshooting Pvt. Jackson from "Saving Private Ryan").
The movie focuses its early scenes on Norton. What we see of this racist punk, who makes desultory love with his wife (January Jones) in the kitchen while watching TV, presents an almost risibly coarse picture of soullessness, between the porn stashed in his truck and the viciousness with which he manhandles the border-crossers he's paid to apprehend. There's going to be trouble, one of Norton's superiors tells him, "if you keep beating these people up." Norton cannot foresee how much trouble lies ahead.
The small-town Texas parts of "The Three Burials" resemble playwright William Inge in a 10-gallon hat. Pete's paramour is a local diner waitress (Melissa Leo, wry and beautifully weathered) who's married to the cook but also sleeping with the sheriff (Dwight Yoakum). From the waitress Pete learns who killed Estrada. At that point Jones' film begins tracking the unlikely journey into Mexico taken by Pete and the kidnapped-at-gunpoint Norton, carrying on horseback the rotting corpse of the dead man. Pete's mission is to treat Estrada to a proper burial in Mexico, making up for his ignoble end in America.
Once it crosses the Rio Grande, the movie shifts into more overtly allegorical territory without losing its bearings. When Pete and Mike encounter an old blind man living in the middle of nowhere, the scene recalls a host of filmic precedents, including "Frankenstein" and Hitchcock's "Saboteur." Under a baking sun, in a stunning variety of scenery captured, splendidly, by cinematographer Chris Menges, the rancher/border cop odd couple trade murderous glances, not so different from Bogart, Huston and Holt in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
More sparingly than he did in the compelling "Amores Perros" or the pointlessly fractured "21 Grams," screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga juggles flashbacks with present-tense action, particularly in this film's early stretches. Some of it may be confusing in terms of chronology. Other notions strain credulity. At one point Estrada and Norton's restless, unloved wife, Lou Ann, meet for a motel room assignation, while Pete and waitress Rachel enjoy each other a few rooms away; later, Norton comes face-to-face with another undocumented Mexican woman he brutalized during a sweep. Yet the acting is so good throughout, and Texas native Jones does such a sharp, unforced job of directing a story dear to his geographical and spiritual heart, "The Three Burials" is the rare film that gets better and better as it goes.
In essence it's a story about two guys hauling a rapidly decaying dead man across a line on the map--"Bring Me the Corpse of Melquiades Estrada." But as Arriaga and Jones prove, a lot happens on either side of any divide.
`The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada'
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones; screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga; cinematography by Chris Menges; production design by Merideth Boswell; music by Marco Beltrami; edited by Roberto Silvi; produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam and Jones. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (for language, violence and sexuality).
Pete Perkins - Tommy Lee Jones
Mike Norton - Barry Pepper
Melquiades Estrada - Julio Cesar Cedillo
Belmont - Dwight Yoakum
Lou Ann Norton - January Jones
Rachel - Melissa LeoCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times