Life on the border

Powerful, heartbreaking and intensely emotional, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is a wonder of a film.

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones (who also takes the picture’s lead role) and written by Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams,” “Amores Perros”), “The Three Burials” throws together the lives of a Mexican immigrant, a United States Border Patrol officer and a Texas cowboy, and watches them collide.

Using episodic breaks in time sequence (much like in “21 Grams”), “The Three Burials” is set in modern-day Texas, near the U.S.-Mexican border. Pete, played by Jones, is a world-weary cowboy who lives by himself, whose only attachment to the world is his job. He befriends an immigrant, Melquiades Estrada, and the two develop a close relationship that is only hinted at in the actual film (flashbacks show Pete and Estrada bonding over horses, women and liquor). Yet the lifeline between the two is broken when Estrada is shot by an over-eager border patrol agent, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper gives an astonishing performance in the role of Norton).

Pete is left to pick up the pieces of Estrada’s death. As an immigrant, whose family lives in Mexico and who has no wish to be buried in America (“There’s too many billboards,” Estrada says), Melquiades has no rights as an American citizen. Thus, once Pete discovers who murdered Estrada, he also has to fulfill a promise that he made to his friend on a whim: Pete must bring Estrada back to Mexico and bury him in Jiminez, a supposedly heaven-like small town south of the American border where Estrada once lived.

The plot of “The Three Burials” is tight, focused and character driven. Yet, as flawless as the writing is, it’s the acting and direction that give the film its sharp edge. Both Pepper and Jones give performances that are more than worthy of an Oscar nomination (speaking of which, why wasn’t this film been nominated?). And as a first-time director, Jones shows an understanding of the pacing and depth necessary to push a picture over the edge, into greatness.

“The Three Burials” has an overwhelming number of scenes that are simply astounding. Moreover, the movie recalls the tough, “life is a bitch” pictures (“Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Mean Streets”) that gave American film in the 1970’s its name.

As Pete carries Estrada’s body back into Mexico, with horses and a near-dead Norton in tow, both his heart and his mind clearly begin to go. Pete is an American who has lost everything – an American who has crossed into Mexico on what may be the last journey he will ever make. And as he gets farther and farther away from the lifelessness of poor, small-town American life – trailer parks, billboards, cheap restaurants and cheap people – Pete only gets closer to what will eventually become both his ruin and salvation: madness.