'Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' offers unsettling truth
"He was a good Mexican." That's how a man consoles Tommy Lee Jones in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." In another scene, co-star Barry Pepper gives a disdaining look when a fellow border patrolman gives the sign of the cross at the burial of that "worthless wetback."
Tommy Lee Jones' character made a promise to a man he hired and worked with day after hard-ranching day. He made a promise to that friend - not to a wetback, not to a Mexican - to a best friend before he was killed.
Got the picture? No, you don't.
This is not an issue picture. It is not a revenge picture. Forget making sense of justice and injustice in the harsh, vast, desert Southwest painted on the movie screen. Forget how anybody would live - could live - in such a godforsaken land.
"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is wholly unlike other films. Directing himself, directing for the first time, Tommy Lee Jones ("The Fugitive," "Men in Black") sets a tone that can't be explained and that he doesn't really try to explain.
You will work hard discovering that this film is what it is because the desert is what it is. Life is what it is. If you decide that you want to expose yourself to the unsettling truth of this peculiar fiction, you will be rewarded by its confident and stark images.
Some depictions seem not enough, like the way two women find kinship and sustenance in unfulfilling lives. Others seem too much, like the way a dead body persists as a living character in the story. Still others fill the cracks with poetry, like the way the corn needs shucking or the way a horse dies but the journey continues.
The Magic Theatre, where "The Three Burials" is playing through April 2, is a small, independent theater. It's a place to try films that go a different way, that are what they are, to touch worlds contrived and true.