Developed from personal conversations and reflections on a real-life incident, director Tommy Lee Jones and writer Guillermo Arriaga have come up with a beguiling and fast-paced Tex-Mex western saga of transcendent meaning and beauty. Jones, who directs and stars in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, brings his own love and sympathetic understanding of the desert culture that stretches across West Texas and northern Mexico to portray a man moved by friendship to achieve grace—by breaking the law and pushing the boundaries of sanity. author and screen writer Arriaga, who lives in Mexico City, crafts lively, unforgettable, recognizable characters finding themselves in seemingly implausible life situations. At the heart of this film is an ethics of transcendence, the story of honor and friendship which goes beyond political or cultural borders.
Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is a ranch foreman who hires and eventually befriends the Mexican cowboy Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). They start hanging out together, drinking and whoring, as Pete becomes something of an older, protective brother to his new-found buddy. Xenophobic animosity runs deep and violent in Texas, and Anglo-on-Mexican institutional racism is at the heart of the film. To Perkins, Estrada is a good man, a good father and husband who misses the family he left behind to seek work up north. Cedillo is disarming in his seductive portrait of the man-child and only gradually does this self-flattering image of macho bravura, which he and Pete both have of him, begin to give way to another one, of a man who abandoned his family to their own fate, one of poverty and social ostracism, years before.
Estrada’s inadvertent early demise comes at the hands of another man-child, the border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a psychotic law-and-order nut who has moved his wife down with him from Ohio in his Ahab-like pursuit of extracting "justice." Norton is a classic, if seldom publicly acknowledged, northern clansman type, a former military man who carries his sense of battle mission, and racist xenophobia, into civilian life. While Perkins and Estrada are a couple of good old boys whose idea of fun is tying one on and sport-fucking some other guy’s wife, Norton hasn’t got an ounce of levity in his body. For him, it’s a straight, up-and-down, command-or-obey food chain. His wife Lou Ann (January Jones) is his personal live-in cook, dish washer and semen receptacle. Norton, at the creative hands of Jones and Arriaga, is made to bear the burden of debt for a long line of sadistic racists and some of the rich cathartic power of this film derives from the drawn out Schadenfreude of seeing Perkins make Norton pay for his every transgression (most ostensibly, for killing his good friend Melquiades) in Norton’s own currency.
There actually are three burials of Melquiades. Burial One was originally necessitated when Patrolman Norton, trigger-happy and easily excitable, accidentally shoots and kills Melquiades. Norton and his superiors surreptitiously bury the corpse and cover up their crime with the help of the local arm of the law, the laughably impotent Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). After the corpse is reburied, properly, in a public cemetery (Burial Two), Perkins takes Norton prisoner and forces him to dig the body up. The three of them head out on pack horses for the Mexican border. At this point, the film enters a magical dimension and the men find themselves on a mythic quest of sublime transformation.
Kudos to Melissa Leo for her portrayal of the bed-hopping truck-stop waitress Rachel, with a nod to Levon Helm as the blind hermit, and January Jones as the Midwestern housewife who comes to her senses. Above all, Tommy Lee Jones is superb as the outlaw-turned-holy-fool, who embraces his manhood in all its absurdity.