Cinema Signals by The Filmiliar Cineaste:

The Company You Keep:
The Transforming Power Of Male Friendship

. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"

Tommy Lee Jones chooses, for his first directorial effort, a story penned by screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams") about the wages of friendship, trust and real promises. Much of it told in flashback, it starts with a quick and shallow burial of Estrada when his corpse is discovered being attacked by a coyote.

When the body is exhumed for an autopsy, the manner of death is determined to be a bullet. A crime has been committed. Curiously, the local authorities, led by Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) make no attempt to ascertain who pulled the trigger on this poor guy and hastily transfer the corpse to a pauper's grave. (That's two down and one to go). About the only person deeply concerned about the injustice is Pete Perkins (Jones), who has lost his closest friend.

The area, being a border town, is crawling with Border Patrol. One new agent on the scene is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a man living on nervous energy, unconstrained temper, and terrible judgement. He and wife Lou Ann (January Jones) rent a large trailer home, from which he goes on his daily rounds rounding up illegal immigrants.

Now, Mike is both good and bad. He attentively agrees to Lou Ann's demands while treating her pretty much as an animal in his procurement of marital sex. He's got the maturity of a pre-teen delinquent and the wisdom of cactus.

Lou Ann doesn't seem to mind so much and, left to her own devices during the day, she starts hanging out at the local diner where she strikes up a girl-to-girl friendship with Rachel (Melissa Leo) the hard-edged cook-owner's wife with yards more experience in the ways of man, particularly Pete, with whom she enjoys an afternoon tryst on a regular basis.

Pete's desire to track down the murderer of his friend is explained when we flashback and see just how close he was with Melquiades. For one, he was sharing the afternoon trysts with him, as Lou Ann, in obvious need for some excitement, joins in. Melquiades is tentative with her, respectful, and delighted. As though he realizes that a Mexican's life, living on the U.S. side amidst border patrol and good-old-boy justice, is a matter of brevity, he asks Pete, one day, to promise that if he dies, Pete will take him to his home in Mexico and bury him there. To Pete, a promise like that is a vow to God.

When Pete (with a little help from the sheriffs and Rachel) finds out who shot Melquiades and why, he exacts a proper penalty while carrying out his mission to bury the dead man where requested.

The picaresque journey is slowly (and one might complain, choppily) revealed in a pattern of flashbacks, replete with delicious character roles. This is a wry portrait of existing injustice where law is flaunted and civilized conduct is constantly tested. Jones is our stalwart conducter of unalterable moral conviction, completely living up to the expectations of character and humor one might expect of his personna and tough-tempered presence. But he doesn't just show what he can do with the role. His casting is a display of impeccable judgement in choosing lesser known and first-time talents in a low budget piece of cinematic art.

Consider January Jones who embraces the screen with her Sioux Falls freshness as she has done for small roles in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," "Love Actually" and "Anger Management." Melissa Leo's ability to fully characterize a stereotype was in full evidence in "21 Grams" and she knocked us out as Sgt. Kay Howard in "Homicide," the movie and the hit TV series.

Dwight Yoakam puts on a little weight and good 'ol boy country manner after sightings in "Hollywood Homicide" and "Panic Room." His redneck Sheriff with own problems quite beyond anything the law can help him with is dead on, as are his musical contributions to the score.

Barry Pepper lands the best role of his career, and probably the most extended, finally getting his chance to chop into a solid lead role that should win him much attention. He's in good hands and good company here, both as a foil and a fool.

This may not be Jones' funniest role. It would be hard to beat "Men in Black." But the same taste and laid back, tough and resilient temperament serves him, this time in the command seat and with a satire that touches deeply even as it amuses so richly.

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                                      ~~  The Filmiliar Cineaste  

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