For a while now, the rough, craggy territory straddling the porous border between Texas and Mexico has seemed like no place for kindness. When the controversial director Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”) destroyed Hollywood’s longstanding love affair with old-fashioned Western idealism, it was as if the terrain itself had acquired a whole new meaning – suddenly, behind every sun-baked panorama and rugged mountainside, there lurked a dark underbelly of flawed masculinity, social conflict and unflinching violence.
So what comes as a surprise in Tommy Lee Jones’s gorgeous directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” is not the moral weakness and callousness of the characters that occupy this harsh landscape, but the underlying sense of love and devotion that brings out its true beauty.
The story centers on Pete Perkins (Jones), a righteous, solitary ranch-herder who learns of the murder of his best friend, fellow cowboy and illegal Mexican immigrant Melquiades (Julio Cedillo, “The Life of David Gale”). Realizing the unwillingness of the local authorities to investigate the case, Perkins conducts some amateur detective work, leading him to border patrol officer Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, “25th Hour”). Upon confirming Norton’s guilt, Perkins kidnaps the officer at gunpoint, forces him to dig up his victim’s grave and makes him haul the rotting body to Mexico on horseback. The justification for this act – as a set of flashbacks gradually begin to illuminate – stems from a request Melquiades made that if he should die in the United States, his body must be buried in his home village.
Calling to mind a slightly less unsavory version of Clint Eastwood’s character in “Unforgiven,” Perkins exudes an aura of tough, leathery sadness, bound by an unwavering notion of vigilante justice in a morally ambiguous setting. One of the most subtly penetrating aspects of the film is its representation of conflicting senses of masculinity. Countering Perkins’s traditionally independent, Western-cowboy archetype, Norton is a modern embodiment of Southwest American heroism – a hardworking border patroller, struggling tirelessly to protect his country from illegal aliens.
While “Three Burials” reaches quite deep in its pointed critique of these ideals, it’s the quiet, fractured portrayal of human compassion that largely carries the film. Despite his obvious naivet