When the body of a Mexican is discovered shot in the hills, the authorities shrug. After minimal preliminaries -- they extract the bullet and check his pockets for ID -- the man now identified as the undocumented ranch hand Melquiades Estrada is buried in a pauper's grave. Another day in a Texas border town.
But it doesn't sit right with Estrada's erstwhile boss, Pete Perkins, who once promised the caballero he'd return his body to Mexico should he ever die. Thus, Perkins, an old-school, natural-law sort, sets out to track down the killer and give Estrada a proper interment.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the directorial debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones, who also brings his patented quiet, grizzled authority to the role of Perkins. Burials was penned by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and the film's first half employs the same chip-chopped, nonlinear narrative. This serves to fill in the minimal back story of Estrada's death, but in such a straightforward story as this, the style seems contrived and unnecessarily confusing.
In no particular order we meet border cop Norton (Barry Pepper) and his bored young wife, Lou Anne (January Jones); an earthy waitress named Rachel (Melissa Leo); and a pair of ineffectual law officers. Through a series of disconnected vignettes, we're shown the dusty, restless impermanence of this tiny town -- a place sustained, ironically, by the porous nature of the border, a loose amalgamation of ranches, motels and trailer homes with few secrets and nothing for entertainment but casual sex, bad television and the odd burst of violence.
It's a decent set-up for an ensemble piece about the day-to-day ennui behind today's headlines on border security, and how it's less about us vs. them than just a bunch of folks getting by. But at mid-point, Burials shifts gears, becoming a less likely, and less interesting, tale of frontier justice. The flashes of dark humor that illuminated the human drama in town feel inappropriate as the story becomes laden with seriousness of purpose. (Doing goofy things to a corpse can only conjure up Weekend at Bernie's.)
Jones was honored at Cannes last year for Burials, and his film is in league with those revisionist Westerns long beloved by the Europeans. Perkins lives by a mythic Western code, where honor among men trumps language, borders and the finer points of the law. But the longer the film went on and the more absurd the plot became, the more stock that characterization felt. Ultimately, we don't learn much else about Perkins - nor the other townfolks whom the film abandons midway - but at least he's a familiar and comforting sort. In English, and some Spanish, with subtitles.