Tommy Lee Jones' character Pete, in his remarkable directorial debut 'The three burials of Melquiades Estrada', is the culmination of the actors' onscreen persona - a man brimming with sobriety and ruggedness yet remaining sympathetic and reasonable to us even while being unreasonably violent to his captive. As Pete undertakes a trip of atonement from the arid terrains of Texas to the jagged plains of Mexico with the body of his friend Melquiades Estrada firmly placed on one horseback and Mel's beaten up murderer Mike Norton, on another, we witness a tale of devotion to friendship, our need to seek justice and the skewed moral plane that is sometimes undertaken as a quest for redemption.
Written by regular Alejandro González Iñárritu collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, the film heavily uses flashbacks, deals with themes of death and is uniquely segmented by the use of a quartet of title cards; three for each burial that takes places and one for the actual journey. The multiple burials are necessitated by a series of events that begins with the accidental killing of Melquidas by border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who out of his own guilt hides the body in a makeshift grave. The remains are eventually found by state policemen and though a proper burial is given, the facts of the murder are hushed and conveniently swept under the rug, for Melquiades was an illegal immigrant. When Mel's close friend Pete learns of this, he storms over to Mike's cosy confines, drags him out to exhume the body and takes him on a trip to give the deceased a proper burial in his Mexican hometown, as the fulfillment of a dying wish.
In a film that is very archetypal of the modern revisionist Western, the female characters have strong roles – here filled by the presence of January Jones as Mike's lonely wife and Melissa Leo as the cheating wife of a diner owner who helps Pete out - and the film presents a critical view of its government (its stance on illegal immigrants in particular), but it never becomes about these more contemporary topics. It has on its mind the more traditionally masculine essentials of brotherhood, fraternity and punishment for crimes. As Pete, Jones gives a tormented portrayal that won him a best actor award at last years prestigious Cannes film festival. When faced with the xenophobic brutality of Barry Pepper's border control officer (who regularly roughs up Mexican's caught crossing the border illegally), Pete's acts seem to be more humane to us, despite the extreme actions taken by him. No scene highlights this better than the one where he takes Mike to Melquidas ranch, forces him to dress in his victims garb and then drink water from his cup. In true Western fashion, a code of personal ethics (that of Pete bringing to justice his friends murderer) has a higher moral bearing than the law governing individuals and thus when Pete takes things into his own hand, we find nothing wrong in his actions, even while local Sheriff's begin their own chase.
As the film reaches its conclusion, it does so with a series of setups that create ambiguities and fuel questions about what had happened. For once, the answers remain secondary and to borrow an age old maxim, the films meaningfulness develops from its journey and not its destination. The greatness of this film lies therein. - Faizan Rashid