Time jumps, reverses, creeps, and generally surprises in movies written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams). At many junctures in his latest film to hit the market, time simply stops. As when The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada's good, bad, and ugly trio — rancher (Tommy Lee Jones, in his directorial debut), kidnapped border patrolman (Barry Pepper), and rotting dead friend (Julio Cesar Cedillo) — are crossing the Texas-Mexico border and take a break at the shack that time forgot, where an elderly gentleman is apparently waiting to die. The man kindly serves them inedible soup, then begs the men to euthanize him. They decline.
Set in the gorgeous, thirsty landscapes of West Texas-Chihuahua, a story that should be something of a race against time turns into a patiently morbid meditation on place. Technically, the question of "where" at the heart of this film centers on the burial plot: Jones's Perkins goes on the lam to deliver the perhaps stolen, decaying body of his unjustly killed employee/best friend, Melquiades, trekking from a cheapened Texas of mobile homes, lonely diners, and sordid sex through rattlesnake-and-mountain territory to Melquiades's mythic Mexican home. Perkins has other cargo besides the dead body: a live one he's kidnapped — the trigger-happy border patrolman who accidentally killed Melquiades, and who, Perkins believes, needs an education regarding his crime. The Cincinnati-bred border patrol agent who keeps the people out with a gun now has to make the arduous journey with no shoes.
It is, in a way, a tale of two oeuvres: Jones plays Jones as well as he's ever played him (he's a native of West Texas and originated the project, which was inspired by a true story), and in the first half, at least, Arriaga rearranges the sequence of events into his trademark brilliant confusions. The result is unexpected: methodical and thoughtful where it could have been paranoid and adrenaline-fueled, the film's sacred pace and silent sarcasm are just right for a new West that feels older than ever.