The two best movies of the last year are cowboy movies. One is about gay cowboys, and the other, Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is about a dead cowboy.
Burials follows grizzled old ranch hand Pete Perkins (Jones), whose close friend, fellow ranch hand Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedrillo), is an illegal Mexican immigrant. Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is a jittery, gun-happy, redneck border patrolman who shoots Melquiades while out on the job. Norton and the police call it self-defense; Perkins calls it the murder of his close buddy. One night, in a tearful rage, he kidnaps Norton at gunpoint, forces him to dig up Melquiades' rotting corpse, and takes him on a cross-country horseback journey into the heart of Mexico, the body in tow. Perkins is intent on fulfilling a promise he made to Melquiadas that should he ever die, Perkins would ensure his remains were buried in his hometown. And, for reasons that you will wait in breathless anticipation to find out, he wants Norton to come with him.
From here, screenwriting genius Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), spins a rugged, tough border adventure of Cormack McCarthy proportions, made surreally hilarious by the accompanying decomposing corpse. There are astounding twists and turns here, and Jones' confident debut direction packs the screen with tenderly wrought characters and the nuances of Southwestern-small-town life. A real-life ranch owner/cowboy himself, Jones approaches this material with joyful, almost cocky authenticity; a scene in which the unlikely duo (trio, technically) ride their horses along a dangerous cliff edge is breathtaking—no special effects involved. Such exhilarating energy touches every part of the film, from the stellar performances (Jones, with a strange combination of weary, dangerous cynicism and warm humor, has never been better, plus look for wonderful cameos from Dwight Yoakam and Levon Helm) to the oddly compelling, circular editing style.
I hate to say this kind of thing in print, and I rarely do, so maybe you'll forgive me: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the closest thing to a perfect movie you'll ever find. It feels good to gush sometimes, especially when there's reason to.