Tommy Lee Jones' feature directorial debut is probably much as you'd expect: a blast of nostalgia that nonetheless accepts the realities of modernity, which isn't surprising coming from an actor who's getting up there in years but has found more fame as an old man than as a young'un. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada opens with a desert panorama and simple titles stripped right out of the Sergio Leone playbook, but it's not the Old West we're watching. This is the new West, where the most pressing problem isn't gunslingers, but illegal immigrants.
Jones' story, scripted by his friend Guillermo Arriaga, is based on a true 1997 incident in which a U.S. marine shot and killed an eighteen-year-old Latino goatherd, the first time a U.S. citizen had been killed by a marine since 1970. A financial settlement was reached in that case, but no one was ever formally charged. The shooter was one Corporal Clemente Banuelos, a name that would seem to rule out racial motivations in the killing, though Jones and Arriaga make things more cut and dried, envisioning the fictional Melquiades Estrada's killer as a white border-patrol agent named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). It's presented as an accident, but one can't help feeling an extra layer of ambiguity would exist if it weren't a white-on-brown crime being depicted.
Like many other actors-turned-directors, Jones also stars, as a ranch foreman named Pete Perkins, who seems to be the only one bothered when Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) turns up dead in the desert. Meanwhile, we also follow the settling in of border agent Norton and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones); it takes a while to realize that these stories are not taking place at the same time, nor is the one in which Melquiades arrives at Perkins' ranch and the two bond in Spanish. Once you realize that Jones is playing around with timelines, it's easier to follow, and the inevitability of events becomes clear. Norton's a brutal enforcer of border laws, but he doesn't mean to kill though we know he will. Once the first half of the movie is done, the timelines converge into one and become more linear. The first burial occurs out in the desert, and the second is done by the local authorities, led by asshole Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). What they hadn't reckoned was that Perkins made a promise to Estrada to return his body to Mexico if anything ever happened to him.
Once he realizes who was responsible and that no one is interested in bringing the accidental killer to justice Perkins opts for some Texas-style justice to fulfill his original obligation. Not only will he dig up the dead body and haul it back to Estrada's hometown, but he'll bring Norton with him, forcing the man to confront his crime. You'll believe that any character played by Jones could be crazy enough to pull such a thing off. Most of the movie's second half involves the journey through the desert, with an increasingly decaying dead man and a beaten-down captive.
Perkins is ostensibly our hero, but he gradually starts to come off as completely deranged. Not especially skilled in corpse handling, he sets fire to his dead friend to scare away the ants, then inadvertently pulls out some of his hair. His solution to the problem of decomposition is to pour antifreeze down the dead man's throat. As for his captive even viewers who oppose the death penalty might have accepted a simple shootout between Perkins and Norton, but instead Perkins keeps Norton tied up and relentlessly abuses him all the way down to Melquiades' hometown, where presumably Perkins' intentions are not benevolent. Even the most vehement Latino pro-immigrant activists may feel sorry for Norton before Perkins is done with him.
It's hard to tell to what extent this ambiguity is deliberate. The impression one gets is that Perkins is supposed to command our sympathies, as he has a track record of being the nice guy, and there isn't much that's good about Norton who bores his own wife, even during a really goofy doggy-style sex scene at the kitchen counter (she watches TV the whole time; he rolls his eyes back into his head like WWE's The Undertaker). But that doesn't seem like enough to merit the nonstop beatings he takes afterward. Yes, he killed a man, but accidentally, and under circumstances where it was reasonable to believe that his own life was in danger.
Still, it's certainly a memorable film, and Jones successfully meets many of the challenges he's set for himself as both director and star. The ending is in many ways unexpected, and in at least one way, slightly confusing. Jones and Pepper are no Eastwood and Wallach, but the fact that one even thinks to make such a comparison speaks highly of the work here.