Tommy Lee Jones' first directing gig in more than 10 years was worth the wait.
The gritty drama "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" shows star Tommy Lee Jones at his nastiest. Granted, the hard-boiled actor has made a career out of playing surly characters, but this role combines the snarly determination of his Oscar-winning turn in "The Fugitive," the unfettered ruthlessness he displayed as the villain in "Batman Forever" and the angry-at-the-world chip on his shoulder that drove "Cobb."
Jones also displays a side that we aren't used to seeing: the artiste. Eleven years after his first attempt at directing (the made-for-TV Western "The Good Old Boys"), he finally has stepped behind the camera again. He has done so with confidence and aplomb, fashioning a rugged modern-day Western that evokes the spirit of Sam Peckinpah -- and reinvents it through his own perspective.
Working from a script by Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams"), Jones explores the eternal question about ends justifying means: Is it morally acceptable to do bad things for a good reason?
The story takes place in a sleepy Texas border town where Pete (Jones) is a foreman on a ranch that also employs Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo, "The Alamo"), a Mexican immigrant trying to scrape together enough money to send for his wife and kids.
Melquiades is shot and killed by an overly aggressive Border Patrol agent, Mike Norton (Barry Peppers). Norton tries to hide the murder by stashing the body under a cactus in the desert (the first burial). When hunters stumble on the corpse, the sleazy sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) moves quickly to inter the body (burial No. 2), hoping that he'll bury the shooting investigation along with the corpse.
But Pete needs closure. He kidnaps Norton, loads the rapidly decomposing body on a pack horse and heads south, intent on having the killer atone for his sin by giving Melquiades a proper burial in his Mexican hometown.
Pete is not the kind of person you want to rile, something Norton quickly discovers. And we discover Norton is not nearly as tough as he talks. When he balks at accompanying Pete, the latter beats him up and ties him to a horse. Pete shows no remorse for his brutality -- the same attitude Norton exhibits when killing Melquiades.
Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges ("The Mission"), Jones has turned the vast nothingness of deep Texas into one of the characters. There's so much dust in the air you almost start to feel it getting in your eyes. This is not an environment for the weak of spirit or muscle.
As he did in "21 Grams," screenwriter Arriaga employs an elliptical narrative in which much of the story is told in flashbacks -- which are not in chronological order. It's not quite as complex as his 2003 script, but it still requires viewers to assemble the timeline in their minds.
Jones makes Pete into an emotional nuclear reactor perpetually on the edge of a meltdown. As impressive as the performance is, Pepper (star of the made-for-TV movie "61*") has the tougher assignment: He spends most of the movie reacting rather than acting. Norton assumes that the only way he can stay alive is by placating his mercurial kidnapper, so every time Pete's mood swings, Norton tries to come up with what he hopes is the appropriate response.
The appropriate response to "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is applause.
The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada
***½ out of four stars
Jeff Strickler 612-673-7392