Tommy Lee Jones turns a new leaf with The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, his feature directorial debut about the power of friendship and the lengths people will go to honor it. Along with the critically hailed Brokeback Mountain, this film offers another twist on the Western genre, breaking conventions and proving there is vast unexplored territory within the traditional gun-slinging settings of the frontier.
Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a Texas Ranch hand who learns that his best friend, a Mexican immigrant/cowboy named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), has been brutally shot to death. The man responsible is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a corrupt Border Patrol officer with a temper like a time bomb and a tendency to browse through Hustler magazines while on the job. After immorally beating up several Mexicans attempting to illegally cross the border, he kills Melquiades while incorrectly assuming he too is a threat. The sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) doesn’t care that one of his men has murdered an innocent man; he turns a blind eye and goes on with his daily routine.
Pete is outraged by the refusal of the police to take action, so he takes matters into his own hands. He breaks into Mike’s house while his pretty wife Lou Ann (January Jones) is watching television, and forces him out at gunpoint. Under Pete’s orders, Mike digs Melquiades out of the ground, straps his corpse to the back of a horse, and travels with Pete and the body for a long trip back to Mexico. Mel’s final wish was to be buried in his hometown across the border, and Pete stops at nothing to see his wish granted, even if it means kidnapping and elongated periods of cruel and unusual punishment.
Three Burials is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, and that is part of what makes it so effective. There is no hero in the story, and guilt shifts to different characters as their journey unfolds. Pete wants to do the right thing by his friend, but his actions paint him with the same tainted brush as the man he is dead-set on punishing. It becomes clear early on that aside from desperate measures, Pete would feel right at home within a straitjacket. He has regular conversations with his dead friend, and it seems feasible that he may have kidnapped Mike more for the forced company than his grand plan for vengeance. There are also several instances where he grooms the corpse, and sets his head on fire to keep the ants from eating at his body. Mel may be deceased, but he still needs to look his best.
Despite a lot of promise, Three Burials falls short of Writer Guillermo Arriaga’s previous works Amores Perros and 21 Grams. He uses his skilled technique of non-linear overlapping stories, but in this film it seems like an unnecessary and overly familiar gimmick. There aren’t enough secrets in the script to warrant these flashbacks and jumps in time, and the occasionally sluggish pace weighs the film down. The redeeming elements are its unique story and superb acting, with Tommy Lee Jones turning in one of his most memorable performances. Three Burials may not be a perfectly polished diamond, but it is one treasure worth digging up.