Double Duty

Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs this year's other great western.

Tommy Lee Jones has one of those faces that looks like it was hammered together out of spare parts from somebody's backyard. Like many craggy-faced guys who become movie stars, though, Jones projects a persona that's strong and silent but not entirely impenetrable, an old-school manliness made endearing by just a hint of vulnerability.

That face and persona have served the actor well over the years, and both have their moment in the sun in Jones' deservedly acclaimed directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, an old-school western for new-school sensibilities.

This has been a good year for westerns, albeit westerns decidedly different from those standard-bearers of the mid-20th century. It's hard to say what John Wayne would have made of those two cowpokes going at it hot and heavy in Brokeback Mountain or how Wayne's principle collaborator, John Ford, would have reacted to the brutal excesses of The Proposition, Nick Cave's Aussie oat opera — but a fair guess is that both Johns are probably spinning like crazy in their graves right about now.

Jones' Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada cleaves a little closer to classic western form than this year's other models, but not without a few idiosyncratic detours along the way. Old-fashioned codes of masculine honor and a near-reverential sense of landscape hold sway, but notions of revenge, redemption and other frequent staples of the western genre are gently shredded and manipulated with considerable black humor. And for what it's worth, this may go on record as the first western ever where a character pulling out his gun is interrupted by the sound of somebody's cell phone ringing.

There's a lot of Unforgiven-era Eastwood in Jones' weathered, world-weary character in Three Burials, but the film itself takes its major cue from another old gunslinger, Sam Peckinpah, and specifically from that director's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. In that film, Warren Oates is a bounty hunter whose tenuous grip on reality slips away as he drives across Mexico in a beat-up car, his only company the human head that he's transporting to the very bad customers down the road.

In Three Burials, Jones' character, a Texas ranch foreman named Pete Perkins, also seems to be losing it as he travels across Mexico with some grisly human remains in tow. But that's where the similarities end. The feel and function of the two films couldn't be more different.

Peckinpah's movie has taken a lot of undeserved heat, but even I'll admit it's as sporadically nasty and slapdash as its accusers claim it to be. Three Burials, on the other hand, is a thing of spare but precisely calibrated beauty: impeccably crafted, oddly upbeat and, despite what some may see as a mildly Peckinpah-esque sadistic streak, brimming with a respectful tenderness for even the least of its characters and a rare and unexpected sense of, dare I say it, poetry.

The movie begins in a small border town in West Texas, where the eponymous Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) has just been discovered shot through the heart and lying in a hastily dug, shallow grave (the first of the movie's series of burials).

To the local authorities he's just one less illegal Mexican to deal with, so Estrada's erstwhile friend and employer, the grizzled, sullen but fundamentally decent Perkins, takes the investigation — and, in the manner of these movies, justice — into his own hands.

Perkins eventually discovers the man who killed Melquiades, and forces the culprit to help him transport his friend's corpse on a strange and treacherous journey back to Estrada's village in Mexico.

All of this information — virtually everything leading up to the journey at the heart of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada — is told from multiple, Roshomon-esque perspectives, employing a fractured chronology in keeping with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's previous time-scrambling in Amores Perros and 21 Grams.

Arriaga and Jones juggle their narrative balls so deftly that we're barely aware of the sophisticated way the story's various elements dovetail during the first hour, or that events that at first appear to be occurring simultaneously are in fact taking place at different times. When the film finishes laying the groundwork of what it needs to tell us, we've already moved into the meat of the tale.

It's nearly an hour before we get to that point, though, and Three Burials passes the time beautifully, introducing its characters, establishing its tone, and setting us up for what's to come. Some of these characters figure prominently in the movie's later sections and some don't, but almost all of them are so richly drawn that it's not immediately apparent where the film wants us to direct our focus.

We get Perkins, of course, basically a loner notwithstanding his curious camaraderie with the enigmatic Estrada, and his on-again-off-again liaison with the middle-aged waitress (Melissa Leo), who keeps herself amused by banging both Pete and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam).

Then there's the rat-like, hothead border cop and his bored, baby-doll wife (Barry Pepper and January Jones), both adjusting (badly) to the transition from being the most popular kids in high school to living in a little trailer with just their own vacuousness for company.

All of these stories eventually intersect, as the teasing tail-chasing of the first half crystallizes as the strange odyssey of two men and a corpse trekking across the Tex-Mex landscape. Fellow travelers are met along the way — a blind, suicidal Texan comforted by the alien sounds of Spanish radio programs; a truckload of Mexicans happily gathered around a little TV showing American soap operas they don't understand — as Three Burials revels in a world that's essentially one long border crossing, where cultures and individuals collide and inevitably transform in the most curious ways.

Transformation is ultimately what happens to Jones' character and his traveling companions, too, but to say anything more would be saying too much. The movie segues neatly from neo-western to Greek tragedy to macabre, absurdist farce, heaping plenty of abuse upon its players (even the best of whom are victims of their own illusions), but never gratuitously.

What Three Burials ultimately comes down to is what all those classic westerns of bygone days came down to — the notion that sometimes only a truly grueling ordeal can grant us the dignity of a place in the world. There's plenty of pain and suffering in Jones' film, but the pay-off is worth it.

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