Volcano, Double Jeopardy, The Hunted, Man of the House. Little about Tommy Lee Jones' recent contribution to American cinema offered reason to believe he was about to appear in a great film, much less direct and star in one. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada earned Jones best-actor honors at Cannes, as well as a best-writer award for Guillermo (21 Grams) Arriaga. In any other year, the film would have attracted Oscar attention as well.
Jones plays a cattle rancher who runs an operation just outside a Texas border town so small, dull and dirt-poor that it's almost not there. As the movie opens, the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) has just informed him that an illegal Mexican immigrant (Julio Cedillo) he hired and befriended has been found shot and buried in the desert. In un-Western fashion, Jones reacts by shutting down. For days he sits in his cabin alone, tears filling his eyes, the desire for revenge filling the rest of him.
As is the way with films written by Arriaga, The Three Burials moves back and forth between the present and recent past. Interwoven with the scenes of Estrada's body being found are scenes involving a Border Patrol agent (Barry Pepper) who has recently relocated to the desolate area. His character seems strangely at home in all this emptiness. He leaves his young wife alone in a sparsely furnished trailer all day while he flips through pornographic magazines in the barren countryside between town and border. He is unnecessarily cruel when making arrests, and too quick to pull the trigger one day when he hears shots being fired in the distance. The agent crouches behind a rock, spots a dark-skinned figure with his scope, and sends a bullet into his chest before it becomes clear the man was only trying to scare an animal away from his goats.
Melissa Leo costars as a waitress in the local restaurant. She's married to the owner, but is on intimate terms with both Yoakam and Jones. That's how boring life is in Van Horn: Her husband, the dive's cook, turns a blind eye to her behavior because he apparently understands there's virtually nothing else for her to do. The alternative would be for her to leave, and he loves her too much to let that happen.
She overhears a Border Patrol officer discussing the shooting with the sheriff and drives out to Jones' place to give him the name of the agent responsible. It's a powerful moment with undertones of a love scene. You can see it in Jones' eyes. She has given much to this man over the years, but nothing to compare with this.
The town's police and the border force comprise an old boy's club and, when confronted by Jones, Yoakam makes it clear he's unlikely to take action against the agent, who claims he fired at Estrada in self-defense. As a result, Jones takes matters into his own hands.
He stakes out Pepper's home, waits until after dark, then forces his way in and takes him prisoner. Shackled in his own handcuffs, Pepper is ordered to dig up the body of the man he shot and is then taken on an odd tour. Jones brings the agent to Estrada's home, where he has him put on his clothes, sit at his table, and drink from his cup. At this point, it begins to hit you this is not a run-of-the-mill revengefest. Jones clearly means to teach his prisoner a lesson. But does that mean he plans to kill him?
The rancher promised his friend -- who had lived in terror of the Border Patrol -- that should anything happen to him he would return his body to his wife and children in the Mexican village where he was raised. The balance of the picture chronicles the fulfillment of that promise. Talk about a long, strange trip.
Jones takes the audience on a journey through landscapes of rock and of the spirit; in places it evokes the work of John Huston, Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah, but the film also has moments of black humor and poetry unique to Jones' sensibility and vision. How many filmmakers could make setting a dead man's head on fire or filling his corpse with antifreeze look like acts of loyalty and love?
Arriaga's dialogue packs a powerful tumbleweed punch. Jones' work behind the camera equals his work in front of it. The cinematography by Chris Menges and score by Marco Beltrami are exquisite, and every member of the cast creates a marvelous character with amazing economy. In 10 minutes of screen time, former Band drummer Levon Helm conjures a spectral figure, living blind and alone in the desert, that no one who sees this film will soon forget. Where have the years gone?
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about hard men and women who have it hard. It's a story about how a death can salvage a life, and the ways the toughest sumbitches can be moved to act by the most tender of impulses. Oscar nomination or no, it's one of the best movies released last year. Missing it, believe me, would be a grave mistake.