Actor Tommy Lee Jones makes an auspicious feature directorial
 debut with
THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, a
 drama about honor and redemption. Written by Guillermo Arriaga,
 whose previous collaborations have been with Alejandro González
 Iñárritu were
AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS. Like those films,
 the screenwriter has taken several plot strands and interwoven
 them and also not told the tale in a completely linear fashion.
 Arriaga's scripts often shuffle time, so that the audience has to pay
 close attention in order to understand and appreciate the plots.
 It sometimes can become a bit tiresome, but if, as in this case,
 the cast is exemplary, it's worth the effort.

         
THREE BURIALS revolves around the unlikely frienship
 between rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) and the illegal Mexican
 immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedilla). Estrada is killed
 in a case of mistaken identity by a trigger-happy border guard
 named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). To cover his crime, Norton
'       hastily buries the body in a shallow grave but it is dug up by
 coyotes.

         While the rancher wants to find justice for his friend, the
 local lawman (Dwight Yoakam) cannot be bothered with the matter,
 particularly as it involves an illegal immigrant. Without informing
 Pete, the sheriff has the body buried in the local cemetery.

         Thanks to a tip from Pete's erstwhile lover, local waitress
 Rachel (Melissa Leo), he discovers the identity of the killer. Breaking
 into Norton's home, he forces the border guard to accompany him.
 They disinter Estrada's body and set off for Mexico to return the
 deceased to his hometown.

         What the above fails to do is convey the rich way that
 Jones as director communicates the material. The film constantly
 takes detours and Arriaga's script doesn't succumb to the cliches
 of the buddy movie or the Western. Instead, it presents a close
 friendship built on respect and loyalty that is seen through to
 the bitter end.

         Jones anchors the movie with a sterling performance as
 the headstrong rancher bent on fulfilling his pal's last request.
 Pepper as his unwitting captive who eventually finds redemption
 is equally strong. There's also good supporting work from Melissa
 Leo as the waitress, January Jones as Pepper's unhappy wife and
 Levon Helm as an elderly blind man who offers a temporary respite
 to Pete and Norton.

                 

         Rating:              B
         MPAA Rating:      R for language, violence and sexuality
         Running time:     121 mins.


                         Viewed at the SONY Screening Room   
The Three Burials of
Meliquiades Estrada
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.