Crossing over to the other side takes on all sorts of meanings in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones' impressive debut as a feature-film director. Straddling the Rio Grande, that porous boundary between the United States and Mexico, this contemporary Western, in which a Texas rancher (Jones, looking a little more grizzly than usual) is willing to go to any lengths to honor his friendship with a dearly departed Mexican ranch hand (Julio CÃsar Cedillo), seems as dry as the desert at first. But like a cactus flower, it slowly blossoms into a parable about love and respect, guilt and redemption.
The skin on his face as tight as a snare drum, Barry Pepper plays a member of the Border Patrol who takes his job way too seriously. This perhaps inevitably leads to an "accidental" shooting that sends reverberations through the border town where Jones and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) take turns with a weather-beaten waitress (Melissa Leo) who also happens to be married. A dead Mexican isn't exactly at the top of the sheriff's things-to-do list, but it's at the top of Jones'. When he figures out who killed his friend, he kidnaps him, forces him to dig up the body and sets off with both of them for the perhaps mythical town of JimÃnez, where Melquiades Estrada will receive his third and final interment.
It's a gruesome journey, to say the least. But Jones, working with cinematographer Chris Menges, gives it a harsh beauty, the sierras and arroyos all but whispering the names of those who've passed this way before. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, who did something similar with Amores Perros and 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada splinters its narrative, favoring space over time, topography over chronology. It's a little hard to follow at first, then things start to fall into place, as if ordained by a higher power, whatever that higher power might be. But rest assured the movie has one. Instead of Unforgiven, call it Forgiven.