(R) 3.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Tommy Lee Jones as Peter Perkins

Set in the border country between Texas and Mexico, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada marks the feature directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones, who also stars. The film fits Jones' persona perfectly: It's rough and tough, and though it has a heart, it doesn't blather on about it. There is considerable brutality and a lot of grisly business involving a corpse (Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a clear influence). There also is a streak of dark humor that kicks in at the damnedest times.

The screenplay, written by Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros) hops back and forth in time, but not nearly as frequently as in his earlier works. In fact, part of the appeal of Three Burials is the straightforwardness of its primary story line. The character played by Jones has a mission and he sets about accomplishing his task with total focus and unwavering dedication. His moral code may not match that of the society around him, but at least he remains true to it.

Three Burials deals with the aftermath of a wrongful death. Pete Perkins (Jones) is a ranch foreman who enjoys a close friendship with ranch hand Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), an illegal alien with a smile as wide as the desert horizon. Perkins also has a romantic relationship with Rachel (Melissa Leo), who runs a diner with her husband. Rachel also sleeps with surly, self-absorbed Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam).

Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) recently moved to town from Cincinnati with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones) to take a job with the border patrol. Mike takes sadistic delight in roughing up the people he captures. One day, just after dropping trou to prime the pump to Hustler magazine while on the job, Mike hears a shot. Scrambling to pull up his pants, he shoots back and kills the man who was stalking him.

Oh, but wait. The dead guy, who turns out to be Melquiades Estrada, was only shooting at a coyote. Since the victim was an illegal alien, Mike's captain (Mel Rodriguez) and Sheriff Belmont decide to cover up the incident, agreeing to quietly bury the body. What they don't realize is that Rachel overheard the conversation.

She tells Pete, who promptly shows up at the Norton home, tying up Lou Ann and kidnapping Mike. After forcing Mike to dig up the corpse, he then takes him on a horseback journey deep into Mexico to bury Melquiades in his hometown.

Sounds like a lot of plot, but it isn't really. The journey is the centerpiece of the film, but the appeal comes with the acting and the clashes between ambiguity and moral certainty. Though Tommy Lee Jones isn't as quiet as Clint Eastwood during his spaghetti western days, he is far from chatty here, which works out well, as one of the pleasures of the movie is studying his great craggy face for clues. Barry Pepper does fine work with the nuances of his character as the trip strips away Mike's arrogance and shows what lies beneath. And the immensely likable Julio Cesar Cedillo is sweet and sad in the title role.

The supporting cast is top notch. As the Sheriff, Dwight Yoakam gives another fearless performance, discarding any sense of vanity to make his character seem genuine. As Rachel, Melissa Leo offers no apologies or easy answers. She is quite good. So is January Jones as Lou Ann, taking what could have been the most trite character and giving her unexpected nerve. Kudos also to Levon Helm, who is heartbreaking in a cameo as an old blind man living in a desert shack.

I got tired of watching all the nasty business with the corpse, but that was probably the desired effect. Three Burials sags a bit about three-fourths of the way through, but it recovers in time for the satisfyingly blunt wrap-up. Jones' direction is a solid as the story, which knows the conventions of the genre and plays with your expectations.


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