One of the best movies of 2005, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has recently arrived on DVD. Working from a strong script by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), director Tommy Lee Jones has crafted a piece of cinematic poetry about friendship, vengeance and responsibility. Jones also stars as Pete Perkins, a Southern Texas ranch foreman whose migrant worker and friend is found murdered in the desert, left for the coyotes in a shallow grave. The narrative takes us back and forth in time to see who this Melquiades was, through the fast and deep friendship he and Pete struck up; the introduction of the border patrolman (Barry Pepper) and his wife, new to the community; and the fateful intersection that led to the shooting. It was essentially an accident, but the patrolman, a thug who has quickly earned a bad reputation, doesn't report the shooting, and Pete doggedly figures it out. When the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to take any action, old Pete decides to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Pepper's patrolman and forces him to dig up the body of his friend, and the three men set out on horseback toward Mexico so that Pete can fulfill a promise and bury Melquiades in the small village he loved.
This is Jones' feature debut as a director, and it is strong, confident work with an elegiac tone. Pete is most definitely angry, but he doesn't let that anger drive him. He wants to make the guilty man understand the gravity of what he has done and cannot undo, to beg the dead man for forgiveness. Even with a graphically decomposing riding partner, there is some real humor, too, and the quixotic journey they make is engaging and poignant.
In addition to being a stellar director, Jones is excellent in front of the camera. He's one of those actors who has been so good so often, but too much of the time—in recent years especially—he's off collecting paychecks in dreadful and forgettable flicks. To see him here is a vivid reminder of how truly great he is, how powerful yet quiet a presence he has, and what a range of subtle emotion he can project and embody on screen.
Three Burials is a little bit of Lonely Are the Brave (1962) mixed with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Lone Star (1996). The result is a great modern Western.