If there was a Clint Eastwood Acting School, Tommy Lee Jones would be a star student. Both men specialize in playing tough, taciturn figures who shave dialogue down to its bare minimum. Jones, like Eastwood and other magnetic, macho movie stars, appreciates that the fewer the words, the greater the onscreen gravitas.
Jones brings out the best in his abilities as a performer in his feature film directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. As Pete, he is a humble Texas ranch hand who mourns the accidental murder and callous cover-up of the title character, an illegal Mexican immigrant. Pete becomes a figure of both grief and frontier justice. Still a man of few words, Jones conveys more vulnerability and emotional exposure than usual while playing Pete. When the small-town sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) asks Pete if he's crazy, Jones hesitates a bit before saying, "No ... I'm not," as if it's a question he has to stop and think over.
Pete's frame of mind becomes a key issue in Three Burials. Eventually, Pete kidnaps Mel's killer, a thuggish border patrol officer named Mike (Barry Pepper) and forces him to dig up Mel and transport his dead friend across the border for a proper burial in his homeland. For most of the film, Pete embodies a familiar figure of Western integrity: a strong, silent, salt-of-the-earth type not too far removed from Jones' role in "Lonesome Dove," which also featured Jones' character delivering his best friend's corpse across the country.
But as Pete cares for Mel's rotting body, treating it with antifreeze so the ants won't eat it, we realize that his quiet may contain outright madness. Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga turn Western traditions upside down -- it's like discovering that Gary Cooper has gone rabid. Pete's noble attempts to honor his friend and punish a killer seem not just quixotic, but genuinely crazed.
In his previous scripts, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Arriaga reveals a post-modern sensibility that seems a strange match with Jones. While the actor/director specializes in a no-frills style, Arriaga practically rejoices in stylistic frills, especially scrambled chronology. Three Burials opens with the discovery of Mel's body, cuts back to when he first meets Pete, and fills in details on Mike, the border patrol officer who arrives in town with his beautiful, bored wife, Lou Ann (January Jones). We see the shooting first from Mike's point of view, then Mel's.
The choppiness helps foster the impression of dreary days running into one another in a sleepy Texas border town comprised of dismal truck stops, junk yards and prefab homes. Sex and violence seem to be the only outlets in such a dull, dead-end zone, with carnality embodied by Rachel (Melissa Leo), a middle-aged waitress with a leering eye and indiscriminate bedroom habits. Rachel sizzles as a kind of skanky life force whose loose morals Lou Ann begins to emulate for lack of anything better to do.
Arriaga also specializes in bizarre coincidences that belong in opera more than gritty, would-be realistic dramas. And you eventually begin to wonder why Arriaga has subjected his plot to such contortions. More satisfying is the poetic justice of Mike's encounters on the south side of the border.
In Three Burials' second half, the narrative becomes more linear and more conspicuously allegorical, taking on elements of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy novels, in which each crossing of the Rio Grande has moral implications even greater than the geographic ones.
Three Burials avoids immigration politics, although the film makes an angry statement against treating illegal immigrants as a disposable working class. The film's more grandiose themes of personal redemption prove harder to pin down. Just because The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a movie of few words doesn't mean it's profound.