The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

It's not "in pace" getting there.

In the Three Burials of Meliquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones's Pete Perkins is what Clint Eastwood tried and almost achieved in his stylized performance with his no-name everymen: laconic, gritty, principled, violent, and lonely. Jones has the patent, always did, and was found out to be the real thing when in the remake of The Fugitive he gave these memorable words with enough world-weary competence to make Bogie jealous: "What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and dog house in that area . . . ."

I am a sucker for minimalists, and director/actor Jones delivers the best of it in this film. Jones's sense of honor and loyalty demand that he return the body of his friend Meliquiades (Julio Cedillo) to his home in a remote region of Mexico. The interconnection between the border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who shot him, Norton's luscious, bored wife (January Jones), the "wetbacks" beaten by Norton, and the barren but beautiful Mexican border is deftly woven into a slow-moving, relentless story worthy of Jones's tough-guy persona and intelligence. Jones won best actor and the film best screenplay at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival-both honors unarguably worthy.

In fact, Harvard English major Jones gave his crew Camus' "The Stranger" to gain an understanding of alienation, a mode Jones delights in portraying in most of his films. A blind Mexican, one of the characters along the way to the burial, could serve as a Tiresias or chorus from a Greek tragedy. I've heard Jones also pushed Flannery O'Connor's short stories, which are often peopled by outsiders who make a difference, change things.

But Three Burials is still a John Houston-like story of grit and wit lying on a bed of a morality tale, rife with memorable characters who could survive only against the backdrop of mesas, buttes, cacti, and dust, where the elementary nature of good, evil, and everything in between can air itself out and let us peep into the Darwinian justice of a cowboy with a simple vision of returning a beloved buddy to his ideal resting place. But it's not "in pace" getting there.