The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Tommy Lee Jones, best known as an actor, made his cinematic directorial debut with this non-mainstream film, and what a debut it is. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is, if the name doesn't give you enough of a hint, something decidedly idiosyncratic and unique; it's an unconventional character based 'western'.
Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is an illegal Mexican alien living in Texas who gets a job working for Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). The two men are of a similar disposition and become fast friends. Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is a Border Patrol officer who together with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones) moves into the small town where Perkins and Melquiades live. He's a brutal man who uses force against people attempting to cross the border at every opportunity. He accidentally shoots and kills Melquiades while on patrol, and hides the body away. It is later discovered but the local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) decides not to pursue the case. Perkins is enraged, and upon learning that Mike Norton was responsible, he kidnaps him and takes him and the decomposing body of Melquiades on horseback towards Mexico to honour a promise he made to his friend - that he would bury him back in his hometown.
As they travel they encounter many obstacles, and the two of them develop a strange relationship, with Norton in particular taking an emotional and physical battering during his ordeal. In addition to the main narrative - which has a surprising and affecting conclusion - there are several substories relating to the protagonists, including a restaurant waitress named Rachel (Melissa Leo) and her relationship with the Sheriff, Perkins, and Lou Ann.
'Three Burials' is a fascinating film. It starts off with a fractured style that jumps back and forth in time setting up the events that lead to the journey of Perkins and Norton. Taken at face value it's a lean and simple story, but it is has complex representations of themes like friendship, honour, redemption, and faith deeply entwined into the fabric of the film. It also has rich characterization, with every character, even minor ones, being multi-faceted and believable. Both Perkins and Norton go through a profound emotional experience, with Perkins' faith being tested and Norton being slowly transformed into someone with humanity. While there is an overriding sense of stoicism and melancholy, the film is surprisingly funny at times and also has moments that exhibit a great deal of warmth. Also, the macabre aspects of hauling a rotting corpse are addressed and dealt with most satisfactorily! Adding to the character of the film are the simply gorgeous desolate vistas of rocky and desert landscapes and the restrained and subtle score that permeates the film.
The performances are uniformly great, but not in a showy way. Most of the emotions are played beneath the surface, and come to the fore only on select occasions. Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic as the unflappable and uncompromising Pete Perkins, but the real surprise comes from Barry Pepper who manages to believably turn his Mike Norton from someone wholly loathsome to someone sympathetic. The rest are very good in their roles, but the two who stood out the most for me were Julio Cedillo as Melquiades and Levon Helm as an old man encountered during the journey. Cedillo plays a key role in selling the friendship between Melquiades and Perkins, and his wistful longing for his home forms the basis for the journey that constitutes much of the film. The corpse of Melquaides makes a strong impression as well by the way, but I don't think it was Cedillo in those scenes, especially not when it gets set on fire. Levon Helm's role as a lonely old man living out a miserable existence in the middle of nowhere is a minor but memorable one.
As always I have to trot out the disclaimer that I'm not generally a fan of 'western' types of films, but there are some that demand recognition regardless of that fact, and 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' is one of them. The film is always engaging and despite how outrageous events are it never rings false; Tommy Lee Jones has made a terrific film that deserves to be seen.