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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones' stirring and deeply felt Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada proves one thing: Sometimes the most compelling films are the ones closest to the heart.


Three Burials is languid simplicity at its best. The story starts off as a murder mystery of sorts when a Mexican man, Melquiades Estrada, is found shot dead outside a dusty Texas town, near the U.S./Mexican border. Without any family, he's written off and unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave. This is not at all satisfactory for Pete Perkins (Jones), a local ranch foreman and Melquiades' only friend. Pete decides to investigate his friend's murder on his own and finds out the culprit is a young hot-headed border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). He kidnaps Mike and forces him to disinter the body. With his captive in tow and the body tied to a mule, Pete then undertakes a dangerous and romantic journey into Mexico to give Melquiades a proper burial.


The older he gets, the more Tommy Lee Jones excels at portraying a man of few words. Maybe its because his face--filled with years of deep lines and crevices--can explain everything just by staring off into the distance or by coldly glaring at an enemy. As Pete (for which Jones won best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival), the actor hands us a lonely cowboy who finds a friendship with an unlikely amigo (played by Julio Cedillo). These two don't head towards Brokeback Mountain territory but the bond is there. And when Melquiades is killed, it sends Pete into a spiral of pain, revenge and eventual self-discovery. As Pete's captive, Pepper (25th Hour) turns in an amazing performance as the bewildered border patrolman, who goes on his own journey towards redemption. And on the sidelines is January Jones (American Wedding), as Mike's wife, and Melissa Leo (21 Grams), as Pete's sometimes girlfriend, who give boredom a whole new outlook and aptly show just how stuck a beautiful woman can be in such a nowhere town.


It's clear Three Burials is indeed very close to Jones' heart. Shot almost entirely on his sprawling West Texas ranch, Jones' directorial debut was apparently born out of years of deer-hunting trips he took with Three Burials' screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote the happy little film 21 Grams). "You don't have to spend much time along the Rio Grande before you realize that [Arriaga's] country and mine and the same," Jones told Entertainment Weekly. Jones paints a vivid picture of this land--and the people--he obviously loves dearly, while also depicting the racial and political tensions brewing along the border. But it's Arriaga's script that deftly changes the film's pace. It's a Western, a dark comedy, a revenge thriller that eventually turns into a Don Quixote journey of sorts--and the whole thing just keeps you glued, save for a few extraneous moments here and there. This could be the start of a beautiful collaborative team.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.