If nothing else, the name is a dead giveaway that The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is not your typical Hollywood flick. I can't imagine how Tommy Lee Jones, who directed and stars in the film, kept the suits from changing the name to something catchier like; The Interment of Pedro Gomez.
The Three Burials is hardly to be compared with that other Western movie for 2005, Brokeback Mountain. While Brokeback gives you a romanticized, Eastern view of the cowboy life, with beautiful mountain vistas, crystal clear streams, lush meadows and cowboys who never break the creases in their pre-washed jeans, The Three Burials gives you grit -- lots of grit.
Although graduating from Harvard (he was a roommate of Al Gore, peace be upon him) with a degree in literature, Jones is intimately familiar with the world he depicts in The Three Burials. Jones grew up on a ranch in Southwest Texas, speaks fluent Spanish and still owns a 3,000-acre spread near San Antonio, where he raises horses. The movie has an air of versimilitude. It shows a dusty, down-at-the-heels kind of place where the sun and the boredom drive everyone a little bit crazy.
Jones plays a ranch foreman who hires the illegal Estrada as a cowboy. The two become good friends, as Estrada spins tales about the family he is supporting back in Mexico and Jones introduces Estrada to the only entertainment in town, spending a couple of hours with bored housewives turning tricks at the down-at-the-heels motel. Estrada is shot while herding livestock by a border patrolman whose wife Estrada had been bedding. It is not clear whether the patrolman knew about the connection. Although the shooting appears to be an accident, the border patrol tries to hush it up and buries Estrada in an unmarked grave. But Jones has his sources, finds out who was the shooter, kidnaps him, makes him dig up the corpse and then sets off cross country on horseback with the shooter and the corpse to take Estrada back to his village and his family.
This wouldn't be a movie unless there were lots of adventures along the way. There are chase scenes, but they're intelligent; not a bunch of cars careening and colliding on busy city streets. When Jones finally gets to his destination there have been changes in all three -- the character played by Jones, the border patrolman and the corpse. And they're met by a surprise that I did not anticipate and won't give away.
My main criticism of the movie is the confusing flashback sequences, particularly towards the beginning and middle of the movie. I don't know why flashbacks are such a favorite device of movie makers, particularly without the swirly out of focus transitions to let you know you're now seeing a different time. I try not to be overly literal, but I really prefer my movies going forward chronologically, unless there is a unique reason not to do so, as in, for example, Momento. The flashback problem is all that kept me from giving this movie five stars, but since I gave four stars to Brokeback, and I liked Three Burials better, I gave it four and one-half stars.