The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a masterpiece, flat out. An award winner at Cannes, director Tommy Lee Jones's ferociously entertaining deconstruction of the West begins deep in Peckinpah territory, but soon forges its own unique, queerly beautiful path.
The story is simple, at least on paper: After an illegal immigrant cowhand is mistakenly shot by a Border Patrol yahoo (Barry Pepper), his devoted foreman (Jones) takes the guilty party hostage, digs up the increasingly fragrant corpse, and heads across the border to perform a decent burial. What transpires is by turns grim, darkly funny (Pepper takes more punishment than Bruce Campbell in the entire Evil Dead series), and, finally, gloriously, unpretentiously profound.
For all his skill, scripter Guillermo Arriaga's penchant for monkeying with the time frame has often felt overly flashy.Here, though, the method works beautifully, imparting a novelistic feel to the increasingly surreal goings-on. With each flashback or stutter-step, the plot—and, more importantly, the relationship between the often lockjawed characters—grows richer. Keeping in tone with the visible decomposition of the title character, Jones and his exceptional supporting cast give things a shockingly earthy vibe—characters belch, slouch, and matter-of-factly let their stretch marks and man boobs hang free. Taken together, these elements would likely be recommendation enough. What launches the movie to a realm above, however, is the revelatory final scene, which posits that even the most damaged people can achieve a moment of... grace? Something, at any rate, that leaves me admiringly tongue-tied.