Dir: Tommy Lee Jones. US.2005. 120mins.

A lone quest for justice becomes an ode to friendship andthe common ground between different cultures in The Three Burials OfMelquiades Estrada, a thoroughly respectable feature-length directorialdebut from Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones.

An actor who believes thatless is more, Jones brings the same approach to his direction with an unfussystyle that emphasises straight storytelling and solid performances. Workingfrom a screenplay by Amores Perros writer Guillermo Arriaga, he hascreated a thoughtful, carefully crafted drama that should have some resonancefor American audiences and western aficionados but might make less of an impactglobally, depending on the strength of Jones as a box-office attraction.

Recalling the work of SamPeckinpah and 1970s westerns like Valdez Is Coming, The Three Burialstakes a bittersweet romantic view of the West and the border dividing Mexicofrom America.

When his Mexican friendMelquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is found in a shallow grave in thedesert, Pete Perkins (Jones) is determined to discover who killed him. Localsheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) shows little interest in pursuing the matterand arranges for the body to be buried again in a pauper's grave.

The tenacious Perkinseventually identifies Border patrol guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) as theguilty party. He kidnaps him, forces him to dig up the body of Melquiades andthe trio set off for Mexico to fulfil Pete's promise to bury his friend in hishome town.

Like Arriaga's screenplayfor 21 Grams, Three Burials juggles with time, breaking thelinear narrative to double back on itself, revealing a fresh piece ofinformation or offering a different perspective on the same events. It is not atechnique that is used extensively or in a distracting fashion but it adds acertain lyricism to our understanding of the bond that unites Perkins andMelquiades.

Arriaga also has a talentfor injecting his stories with the little ironies of life. Here, Norton doesnot know that Melquiades had been sleeping with his wife Lou Ann (JanuaryJones) and Melquiades did not know that she was his wife.

The screenplay is alsonotable for some strongly drawn secondary characters, including a blind old man(Levon Helm) they meet in the desert and waitress Rachel, played withintelligence and feeling by Melissa Leo.

In common with contemporaryCannes titles like Don't Come Knocking and Down In The Valley,the cinematography plays a pivotal part in the production. Veteran Oscar-winnerChris Menges ensures that every image counts as the journey from Texas toMexico proceeds through desert sands, rugged cliff-tops, blood orange skies andmajestic mountain ranges. The film is rarely less than breathtaking.

Underpinning the story isthe belief that every individual life has meaning and every death is a tragedy.It also begs us to understand that America and Mexico may be separated by theRio Grande and a history of mistrust but on a human level there is no realdifference.

All of this may be spelt outin a fairly obvious manner but one can respect the intentions behind the film,savour the absorbing storyline and the tender loving care that has beenlavished upon it.

Production companies
Javelina Film Company

Int'l sales

Michael Fitzgerald
Luc Besson
Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Tommy Lee Jones

Guillermo Arriaga

Chris Menges

Production design
Merideth Boswell

Roberto Silvi

Marco Beltrami

Main cast
Tommy Lee Jones
Barry Pepper
Julio Cesar Cedillo
January Jones
Dwight Yoakam
Levon Helm