Clearly a movie with a mission—to cut through the cowshit ordinarily infesting modern-day westerns, contemporary views of life on and below the Mexican border, and ideas about macho-man ethical integrity—Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada begins as a fractured rondeau among six or so South Texas townspeople, including a mega-laconic cowboy (Jones), an impotent sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), a diner waitress who’s screwing them both (Melissa Leo), and a new, nasty-edged border patrolman (Barry Pepper), whose skinny wife (January Jones) couldn’t be more bored with the middle of the desert. The splintered narrative, jumping around from before the titular Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is killed to after his second and official burial, seems familiar: the screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, is the Latino Tarantino behind Amores Perros and 21 Grams. But the movie settles into forward motion a third of the way in and becomes a methodical push to the frontier: After learning that Pepper’s uniformed ramrod had accidentally shot Estrada and had it covered up, Jones’s righteous and grieving plainsman kidnaps the cop, forces him to dig up the corpse at gunpoint, and escorts them both south for a proper internment and reckoning.
Arriaga’s script (a prize at Cannes) has a lovely, fascinating shape to it, even if his crushing portrayal of white Americans—all of them, even Jones, suffering from a zombified affect and crippling shortsightedness—is somewhat counterset against his Mexicans, who are all morally balanced, if not always happy or nice. The buddy-brings-the-body-back outline is rusty, and the circular-ironic plotting (the patrolman is nursed by a Mexican woman he punched earlier) is something we’ve become hypersensitive to. But the succession of burials (illegal, “legal,” finally correct and decent) imports a sharp scent of social critique the film’s textures don’t have to amplify. Jones’s movie (his second, after a TNT oater) is a pleasure to soak in, cake-rich with undramatic details, matter-of-fact grit, jukebox country, distinctive visages (Levon Helm as an elderly blind outlander is hard to forget), and drowsy bitterness. The petty warfare of illegal immigration is as merely a fact of life as the ranch-hands-with-cell-phones irony. Poverty is present but never bemoaned; only a cliff-falling donkey left-handedly suggests a social agenda, by way of being a trope-moment lifted from Buñuel’s Las Hurdes.
It’s easy to also appreciate the gallows humor of hauling a friend’s blue body across the countryside, trying to comb its dead hair and making it chug antifreeze to keep the ants away. Still, Three Burials is finally a little smug—Jones, despite a Best Actor nod at Cannes, undergoes no Ethan Edwards corruption-of-the-soul, no ambivalence, no ordeal by rectitude. Ever since the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove, Jones has developed a seriously seductive popular persona—unquestionably right, stubborn, unflappable, adorably gruff, distrustful of social education, naturally at one with “the West,” so bullshit-free he’d rather not talk than say something imprecise. As a filmmaking attitude, it served John Ford and Sam Peckinpah well, but as an icon figure it’s a touch dense and simple. You can wonder if this seasoned rascal is who Jones really wants to be, or who he might be if he weren’t just an actor, but the evocative questions this year fall instead to why this slope-headed paradigm is so attractive to Americans, and why we have lately gone so far as to elect it to president. Jones might be a low-profile Democrat, but in his movies he’s our living neocon nightmare.