Director-star Tommy Lee Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga took top honors at Cannes this year for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a strange and scenic Western about the consequences of the U.S.-Mexico border. Arriaga (who wrote Amores perros and 21 Grams) and first-time feature director Jones take as their inspiration a true-life border injustice: the unresolved, near-border shooting of an apparently innocent Mexican-American teenager.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman and friend and colleague of Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo). When Melquiades is inexplicably shot and killed, Pete makes it his mission to avenge the murder and return his friend to his home across the border. Ever-focused Barry Pepper plays Mike Norton, the border patrolman who, under duress, makes the trip with Pete. Mike is an oversexed, undereducated American monster, Melquiades is a goodhearted and innocent man, and Pete is righteous and loyal but quite possibly crazy.
What's left is to crack wise about stupid, racist white men (one border patrolman shrugs of the Mexican-Americans, "Well, somebody's got to pick strawberries") and their long-suffering women. Norton's bored housewife (January Jones) bends over her sink, rolls her eyes, then takes it from her husband while continuing to watch her soap opera. Meanwhile, no-nonsense Melissa Leo plays the town's loose-on-her-own-terms woman, a married waitress who shacks up with both Pete and his nemesis, a useless sheriff (Dwight Yoakam).
The suggested structure of the title and its subsequent title cards turns out to be somewhat facetious, since Arriaga fashions another intriguingly nonlinear, deceivingly rambling narrative. For all their good intentions, Arriaga and Jones can't strike a satisfying tone, and therefore can't properly move their audience (as an actor, at least, Jones remains rock-solid).
The story is surprisingly droll, but it's the humor that keeps the tone constantly fluctuating from a story Jones obviously takes seriously on a deeper level. A crumbling Levon Helm turns up as desert set-dressing, a Frankensteinian blind man whose kindness masks desperation. Jones also gussies up his frames with quotes from Peckinpah, Ford, and other inspirations.
But what's most telling is that the essentially sanctified Melquiades (his only sin is allowing himself to be coaxed into a little consensual sex) is the least developed character; Cedillo's only extensive dialogue is his implausible extraction, in flashback, of the burial promise. Jones and Arriaga instead focus on the redemption of Estrada's white neighbors, the destructiveness of borders, and the coolness of that crazy sumbitch Tommy Lee Jones.