The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, ultimately, is a triumph for director Tommy Lee Jones. In his directoral debut (apart from a single made-for-TV movie), the actor has created a film not unlike himself: rugged, deceptively simple, and unwilling to compromise. That the movie is a success should not be a surprise; what is surprising, however, is the movie's weakness, and how that weakness is overcome.
Based on an original screenplay by Mexican writer-director Guillermo Arriaga, Three Burials is modern-day western about racism, honesty, and friendship, and about what it means to make a promise. Though the first half of the movie is is told in a non-linear fashion, the story quickly becomes clear: Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo, in a performance of such disarming charm you wish he had survived a bit longer) crosses the US-Mexico border illegally, looking for work as a cowboy. He's hired by Pete Perkins (Jones), a much older man who has a simple life, a job he loves, and not a lot of time for the rules of the border patrol. The two men quickly form a tight bond which is cemented, as such things apparently are, by the gift of a horse and time spent with good-hearted prostitutes.