The Three Burials of Melquiades Estradais a study of true friendship in an unfathomably solitary world. The friendship happens between West Texas rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Mexican ranch hand named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) who just shows up one day looking for work. The two men don’t ask many questions of each other — they’re not really the question-asking kind — yet over time they come to see that they are but two cowboys riding the remnants of a dissipating range, mirror images reflected across the unforgiving border that divides their two countries. “If I die over here,” Melquiades tells Pete in a moment of uncanny prescience, “I don’t want to be buried on this side, with all the fucking billboards.” So Pete promises to see that Mel is buried in his hometown of Jimenez, and when Mel’s badly decomposed body turns up in the desert, bearing a fatal gunshot wound, Pete sets about honoring that pledge.
As the title implies, Melquiades Estrada’s journey to his final resting place will not be a peaceful one, and as he is successively exhumed and re-interred, Three Burials — which was directed by Jones and written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) — takes on some of the macabre absurdity of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in which the piano player in a two-bit Mexican brothel escorts a decapitated head across highways and byways not out of friendship, but rather greed. The spirit of Peckinpah hangs over the film in other respects, too — in Jones’ and Arriaga’s affection for tequila and loose women and hard-driving men, and most of all in its funerary tone, in the way that by escorting Mel back to Jimenez, Pete too seems to be coming home.
Making an altogether impressive big-screen directing debut, Jones exudes quiet control over this full-bodied Western, taking pleasure in his measured pacing, mixing somber authority with flashes of surrealist wit and luxuriating in the magnificent, vanishing vistas of his home state (which have been photographed in widescreen, in brilliant ochres and blues, by cinematographer Chris Menges). Like his earlier work, Arriaga’s script progresses in nonlinear fashion, splintering off into multiple intersecting storylines that form a frieze of loneliness and human suffering: A border patrolman (Barry Pepper) newly arrived from Cincinnati plays out a loveless marriage with his stay-at-home wife (January Jones); Pete and a good-ole-boy sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) vie for the affections of a married truck-stop waitress (Melissa Leo); and a blind old man (Levon Helm) sits out his days in the desert, a portrait of grizzled self-reliance at odds with his total despair, praying for death to come easy.
Over time, we see both how Melquiades Estrada is the common thread running through these stories and how he met with his grisly end. But Three Burials isn’t a whodunit — its real mystery begins only well after the identity of Mel’s killer has been revealed, when we’re on the road to Jimenez and given reason to wonder whether we’re en route to a physical place or merely a state of mind. As it closes in on that destination, the movie grows large with a sense of Mexico as the real last frontier, and of the lengths to which one man might go to honor the only thing in his life of any real value — his word. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada may not be a love story per se, but it is, for my money, the most deeply affecting portrait of cowboy camaraderie to be found on movie screens this season.
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 and JONES | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At ArcLight and Pacific Galleria Stadium 16