Border Tales

Friendship, murder, revenge

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA: Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Written by Guillermo Arriaga. Produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Luc Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, Tommy Lee Jones. Cinematography, Chris Menges. Production design, Merideth Boswell. Editor, Roberto Silvi. Costume design, Kathleen Kiatta. Music, Marco Beltrami. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, with Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones and Levon Helm. Sony Pictures Classics, 2005. R. 118 minutes. 2005 Cannes winners: best actor (Jones) and best screenplay (Arriaga).

Reminiscent of such disparate Westerns as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, the great television miniseries of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada takes the friendship between two men to that ultimate resting place, the grave.

But the desire to be buried at home is a human dilemma, never more unlikely than in today’s border country. The land between West Texas and Mexico is now home to a vast gaggle of armed men working alone and in patrols, scouring the unforgiving desert for unarmed men and women walking into El Norte. In this unbalanced equation, murderous violence is not unknown, and hostility is assumed. Border fears have resulted in a license to kill.

This is the situation ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) faces when his gentle friend, illegal immigrant vaquero Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is murdered while tending his goats. Deeply angered, Pete confronts the local sheriff, Frank Belmot (Dwight Yoakam), with whom he already has a contentious relationship. Belmont makes it clear he will not help Pete find Melquiades’ killer. Their animosity arises because they are both Rachel’s lovers. Played by the wonderful, earthy Melissa Leo (21 Grams, “Homicide: Life on the Street”), Rachel’s a truck-stop waitress married to the cook, who has a warped sense of democratic time-sharing with her lovers.

Eventually, Pete finds out about a new border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has a history of violence in the field. His perfunctory, cruel relationship with his bored wife, Lou Ann (January Jones), merely feeds Mike’s rage. Pete takes custody of Mike at gunpoint and forces him to dig up Melquiades’ body. On horseback with pack animals, they set off for Mexico to return the dead man to his home and family, Mike protesting, in cuffs, and Pete cool and ready for anything.

This is a terrific first film directed by veteran actor Jones. I’m biased toward the genre because it shows off the stark, stunning landscape I love and because the Western is a uniquely American passion play. Three Burials is the first film I have seen since John Sayles’ brilliant 1995 Lone Star that speaks directly and pointedly to the contemporary injustices border towns live with and rarely rail against. In recent years Southwestern border violence has escalated, affecting everyone in the region from ranch owners to backpackers, ordinary citizens to terrorist-hunting militias, drug smugglers to immigrant laborers.

I love the passion for justice that guides the film away from vendetta and blood lust toward an older sense of making right, or as existentialists used to say, “right action.” Unlike the nasty portraits of Mexican hustlers and Indian killers in The Missing (which includes a psychotic shaman who kidnaps young girls to sell to Mexican slavers), here the Mexicans encountered are both generous and courageous. And I like the laconic way Jones shows his character’s vigilance without becoming himself a vigilante. Levon Helm (of The Band) gives a memorable performance as an old, blind man living alone on an isolated homestead who keeps his own counsel about the strangers who have come through his land.

To each his own taste, but if you have a yen for Westerns, this is one of the best in years. Opens Friday, Feb. 24 at the Bijou with my very highest recommendations.