For the bored and brutalized wife of a Border Patrol officer, the name Cincinnati can ring with the magic of Xanadu. Like most of the characters in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, young Lou Ann (January Jones) dreams of a better place; and like most of the women in this contemporary western, she defines that “better” on the basis of hard experience. Cincinnati may not be great, but it’s all lights and whoopee compared with her present home in Cibolo County, Texas, in a trailer next to the railroad tracks, in a town too minute to have its own mall.
Other characters in the movie, men mostly, see the mirage of happiness up ahead. People such as Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) stream north across the border, imagining a brighter life in the United States. Pete (Tommy Lee Jones), Melquiades’s cattle-ranch foreman and friend, travels south instead, to carry out a duty and exact revenge but also, as you gradually understand, to search for a Mexican Eden.
Only Lou Ann’s skull-faced husband, Mike (Barry Pepper), seems to lack such dreams of a better place, having found as much of an ideal as he needs within the pages of Hustler. A dangerous ideal: In one of screen history’s most elaborate demonstrations of the evils of whacking off, Mike is literally caught with his pants down, right out in the Texas sunshine, and so in his embarrassment and panic shoots to death the blameless Melquiades. For this crime against one of the immigrants he has so enthusiastically hounded–and for this sin against his wife–Mike undergoes a long and saddle-sore penance. He becomes, against his will, a traveling companion to Pete and the increasingly unattractive Melquiades, who must be given the sweet and decent burial he deserves, back home.
As this plot unfolds, you will notice how the emotional atmosphere of the border, its terrain, even its geographic location seem to change, depending on which movie The Three Burials wants to be at the moment. You watch, by turns, a protest film directed against several species of injustice; a documentary about the penury of small-town life in the Southwest; a vigilante thriller starring a guy who looks like Warren Oates overgrown with moss; a travelogue featuring scenic mountains and desert; a quest film with elements grotesque and macabre; a melancholy love story of men chasing fantasy women, and of real women wearily distancing themselves from men. The plan for putting all this together–a necessarily tricky scheme, involving ostentatiously scrambled chronology and coy narrative gaps–came from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), whose work very plausibly won a prize last year at Cannes. The job of realizing this script, bringing out both its cleverness and its heart, fell to Tommy Lee Jones, who chose a challenge for his first feature directing job and handled it much as he acts, with brisk authority.
Though not as brisk as, say, Clint Eastwood. Compared with Eastwood, who wants to look as if he just stepped up and said the line, Jones the actor is practically a star of the Yiddish theater, always playing to the audience with his odd-paced delivery and chest-thrusting gait. In The Three Burials, Jones the director has imposed no strong discipline on this style. He lets himself pause soulfully in the stirrup while dismounting a horse, or aggressively rush his speech in a confrontation, or pat Lou Ann’s head in a gesture that’s both kind and indelibly creepy (considering that she’s bound and gagged). What the director grants to himself, though, he also gives the rest of the cast, to the point of letting Barry Pepper become the pivotal figure of the movie.