Tommy Lee Jones was born to play a cowboy. No surprise there - he has a face like a cracked saddle, a voice as parched as the Sierra Mountains. The kicker is that he was born to direct big screen features, too - it just took him 60 years to give it a go.
Forlorn, embittered, absurdist, gruff, redemptive Western The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is, arguably, the finest entry to the genre since Clint's Unforgiven. That's some claim given the improbably high standard of the few oaters made over the last 15 years - Ride With The Devil, Open Range and this year's Brokeback Mountain are particular standouts - but hype plays no part in it. Burials isn't the kind of film that lends itself to hype. It's measured, controlled, fastidiously concerned with time and place, character and storytelling... a film that's content to carefully finger its themes (love and hate, honour and betrayal, race and class) like an aged, worn cowpoke rolling a cigarette.
The inevitable touchstone is Peckinpah: vivid flavours, gnarled, taciturn protagonist and touching adherence to a moral code. But unlike mad, bad Sam's loaded Westerns, Burials has little use for thunderous set-pieces and stylised bloodletting, its one shootout (replayed from different viewpoints) finding no poetry in violence. And despite the film's modern-day setting and frequent flourishes of anarchic humour, it's pleasingly old-fashioned. Jones wallows in the genre; Peckinpah gunned it down in a crazed blaze of glory.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), this starts off as a portrait of a wretched, stymied community before narrowing its focus to patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and cattleman Pete Perkins (Jones), their fates entwined by Mexican immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Cedillo). Mike is his killer, Pete his saviour, doggedly rescuing the body from a shallow grave to take it home. So begins a haunting, grubby, lyrical journey as Pete kidnaps Mike and rides into Mexico with the corpse draped between them.
As much spiritual quest as physical, Jones' debut is laconic and introspective, sombre and profound, trotting cautiously towards not some grandstanding shoot-out but a place of peace. It's a strikingly mature work, as you might expect from a sexagenarian director, but it's also given to bursts of squalid violence and smudges of black humour: witness Pete's hilarious attempts to preserve the decaying corpse. And if the script occasionally flirts with coincidence bordering on contrivance, it's as much to do with the filmmakers' worldview as cutting corners. Life is surprising, absurd and mischievous.
Not a masterpiece, maybe, but a film of rugged beauty and rare grandeur. Seek it out and embrace its humanism.