When a couple of poachers spot a coyote feeding upon prey near the Mexican border, they do some target practice and take the critter out. When they go to confirm their kill, they discover the object the coyote was eating was, in fact, a dead man. The body is exhumed and brought to a West Texas town for a short investigation that reveals the deceased is Melquiades Estrada, friend to local cowpoke Pete Perkins (Jones).
Pete isn't well-liked by the local authorities, mainly because he and Sheriff Belmont (the always surprising Dwight Yoakam) share a lover (Melissa Leo). In the film's opening sequence, we see new Border Patrol agent Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) picking out a motor home with his young wife (January Jones). Norton's role in the film is not made immediately clear (events in the opening segment of the movie are depicted out of order), but after Mike has a mishap in the high desert while sneaking a peek at porn, his role in the story becomes perfectly clear. He plays a major part in the death of Estrada, the film's central tragedy.
Much to the chagrin of Pete, Belmont buries Estrada in a public cemetery. Pete had made a promise to his friend that if he ever met an early demise, he would take him back to his home in Mexico and give him a proper burial. When the circumstances behind Estrada's shooting death are revealed, nobody gives a damn, and no arrests are made. Pete takes action, kidnaps Norton, exhumes his friend for a second time and sets out on horseback to bury Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) in Mexico.
Through flashback, we see Pete and Estrada riding horses, enjoying conversation and going out on dates with a couple of married women. The two don't seem like the closest of friends, but as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Estrada was probably lonely Pete's only real friend in the world. His willingness to break the law and destroy his own life for the burial of a friend makes perfect sense through Jones' carefully modulated performance. It's his best work since Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys.
Had I been able to see this film sooner, you would've heard me trumpeting Barry Pepper for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. His unintelligent and, at first, uncaring character experiences a strange sort of redemption, and there aren't many actors who could've navigated the complexities of the Norton character. He's one of those despicable people who still manages to generate a certain level of sympathy. The same can't be said for the character of Belmont, a person the brilliant Yoakam manages to make perfectly loathsome, something he proved capable of as Doyle in Sling Blade.
By film's end, Pete has gone a little crazy, and so has the movie. Corpse maintenance (keeping ants from eating it, filling the corpse with antifreeze) takes a bit of a mental toll. Credit Jones for making this strange project come together as a cohesive, moving piece. The man waited almost 60 years to make his directing debut, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a rather risky choice. It also proves to be a very good one.