Three Burials’ and a funeral

“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”Sony Pictures ClassicsDirected by Tommy Lee JonesWritten by Guillermo ArriagaStarring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Leo, January Jones and Julio CedilloRated R/121 minutesOpened Feb. 24, 2006Three-and-a-half out of four stars

In reading about “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” the name that keeps popping up over and over again is Sam Peckinpah. It’s not hard to see why.

With movies such as “The Wild Bunch” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” Peckinpah demythologized the Western. A high body count and a keen sense for the macabre characterized his work, and Tommy Lee Jones in his theatrical directorial debut brings much of that sensibility to “Three Burials,” a modern-day Western set in a small Texas town on the Mexican border.

Part morality play, part dark comedy, this film not only deconstructs the American Western but also the ever-popular Revenge Movie. Jones casts himself in the lead role as Pete, a cowboy who takes justice into his own hands when his good friend, Melquiades, (Julio Cedillo) turns up dead, shot right through the chest.

The local police, led by an apathetic racist played by Dwight Yoakam, are unhelpful in Pete’s pursuit of the killer. They carelessly bury Melquiades’ body without even notifying his family, and that’s that. After all, he was “just a [Mexican].”

It soon becomes clear to us and to Pete that the guilty party is none other than Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, in a finely layered performance), a hot-tempered border patrolman who’s about to be in for the worst week of his life.

Pete, a classically developed anti-hero, kidnaps Mike, ties up his pretty young wife (January Jones) and forces his pet hostage to dig up Melquiades’ dead body. From there, the three of them head south to Mexico where Pete intends to bury his friend in his hometown of Jimenez and notify his wife and three children.

“You’re crazy,” Mike tells Pete early on in their journey. And maybe, we come to realize, he is.

On its surface, the story seems easy to figure out, but Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who penned the 2001 masterpiece “Amores Perros”) manage to constantly surprise us. Like much of Peckinpah’s work, “Three Burials” is wonderfully macabre; after all, Pete and Mike are traveling in the hot Mexican heat with a rapidly decomposing body. Melquiades’ dead body gets about as much screen time as many of the film’s main characters.

While you will have to forgive some jumps in timing and logic, “Three Burials” is a captivating examination of loyalty and justice, anchored by the kinds of performances that would have made Peckinpah proud. This is a film not so much about revenge, but about penance and even redemption. When the dust has settled on Pete’s journey, what remains is the heart of the old American West stripped bare.