Few things are held more sacred than how a corpse gets treated, because it speaks to how much a life was acknowledged and valued by those in possession of the body. The first two burials of Melquiades Estrada, an illegal Mexican immigrant shot down in a Texas border town, are born of the indifference that greets the fate of many whose status makes them invisible. The third ends a long journey toward redemption, though it follows a few more indignities along the way. Tommy Lee Jones' sober anti-Western The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada takes the form of a genre movie that might have taken place in the Old West, telling the story of a gruff old cowboy driven by loyalty to a ranch-hand compadre. Yet the film takes place in the present day, as overzealous border patrols include citizen groups like the Minutemen Project and illegals are viewed as somehow less than human. Jones' confident debut feature works hard to restore a sliver of dignity to Estrada and the people he represents, even though his body takes more abuse than it would in a Weekend At Bernie's movie.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga, who specializes in achronological puzzle pictures like Amores Perros and 21 Grams, the story is told in four chapters scrambled by a few hitches in time. Julio Cedillo plays the title character, a poor, humble Mexican laborer whose shots at a coyote are mistaken for hostile fire by border patrolman Barry Pepper. Though new to the job, Pepper has already drawn some negative attention for his abusive tactics, so his immediate response is to cover up the ensuing crime. When the authorities discover Cedillo's body, all signs point to Pepper's involvement, but the local police chief (Dwight Yoakam) and his men choose to close rank rather than stir up trouble over a "wetback." This development angers Cedillo's foreman Jones, who decides to dish out his own brand of justice while making good on his friend's request to be buried near his family in Mexico. So he kidnaps Pepper and the two make their way south on horseback, with the authorities hot on their trail.
The premise is simple, but Arriaga packs on an excess of fat: A few characters, like a promiscuous waitress (Melissa Leo) and Pepper's forlorn wife (January Jones), are nicely drawn but superfluous, as is the mixed-up time structure, which is needlessly confusing before it straightens out completely in the second half. And comparisons to Sam Peckinpah are off the mark: Jones directs with all the grit that's associated with his onscreen persona, but Peckinpah would never allow this degree of sentimentality to slip into one of his Westerns. A better comparison might be to Clint Eastwood, another tough-guy actor whose work as a director is often a little soft at the center. Though heavy with gravitas, Melquiades Estrada isn't quite as ambitious as it seems, yet the mere gesture of laying this body to rest justifies much of the sprawl. In an indifferent world, it's touching that anyone would go through the trouble.