Texas Ranch hand Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) undertakes a dangerous journey to have his deceased friend 'Melquiades Estrada' buried back in his hometown in Mexico.

5

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a Western. It is also the directorial debut of Hollywood star and great American actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, The Executioner's Song, Under Seige, The Missing).

The script was written by Jones' good friend and ranching buddy, Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros). It is a story of friendship and revenge, set in a Texas border town.

The film opens dramatically with two Texas border patrolmen discovering the body of a man out in the desert. He has been shot and seemingly left for dead, half covered in a shallow grave.

No one seems to care very much however, in these parts the man is simply written off as an 'illegal', a nameless, anonymous Mexican immigrant who has jumped the border and shouldn't be there. Only, they are wrong.

As we discover through flashbacks and at the insistence of stockman Pete Perkins (Jones), the man does have a name. He is "Melquiades Estrada", a hard-working, generous soul a long way from home, and according to Pete, the best friend a man could have.

So, as incensed as any man could be at the ignominious treatment of his friend, Pete decides to track down Mel's killer. It turns out to be remorseless patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), just new to the job and the area.
Estrada's death may well have been an unwitting accident wrought by the young officer, but Pete shows him no mercy. Forcing Mike to dig up the body, Pete takes Mike on a relentless journey with corpse in tow, across the border and into Mexico.

It's a maniacal mission: Pete is determined that Mike will do the right thing by his friend by taking him home for a proper burial. Whew...

This is powerful stuff, and a great, intense first film from Jones, who excels both behind and in front of the camera playing the grieving cowboy character of Pete. (Forget Brokeback Mountain - this is the real "cowboy love" movie).

Arriaga also has fashioned a magnificent script, which, like his previous work, aggressively plays with time, forcing the story into a circular narrative.

While Three Burials begins as a tough look at the racism ingrained in American border towns such as this one (a theme it never shies away from), slowly it expands into so much more. Every frame is a delicate balance between love and death, dark and light, the harshness of life and the sweetness it can offer.

It also contains humour (admittedly, much of it gallows humour), plus an emotionality one might not expect from such a 'male' cinema domain. (Nor such a dark story about two men and a rotting corpse - don't mention Weekend At Bernie's...)

Every actor gives their all in well-drawn roles, from Melissa Leo as Rachel, Pete's worldly, bohemian girlfriend, to Dwight Yoakim as Belmont, the town sheriff, impotent in every sense of the word. And Julio Cedillo was a great casting choice to play the living Melquiades Estrada, a soft soul with respect for all things.

He clearly taught Pete a lot about himself and life; it made Pete's maniacal mission of retribution a no brainer, and made Norton's journey into redemption a necessity should he keep keep living this life and call himself a man.

Three Burials offers so much in the way of the western, offering up so many fundamental ideas about life and existence all at once.

Ultimately however it could be read as a film built around relationships - the relationships between men, the relationships between women and men, between 'man' and the land, right and wrong, the living and the dead.

It is a throwback to the start of the (post)modern western, ushered in by the likes of directors Sergio Leone (Once Upon A Time In The West) and Sam Peckinpah (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia).

Their fingerprints are all over Three Burials, as Jones and Co. carry on the beautiful tradition of the genre that just won't die.