Tommy Lee Jones’ exceptional first directing effort takes the story of a Texas border town cover-up and transforms it into a parable in the spirit of a dark Goya painting. Rancher Pete Perkins (Jones), a man of few and slurred words, befriends a Mexican wetback Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) and their bond runs father-son deep. Estrada’s accidental killing opens the film, permitting Jones to reconstruct the shooting’s preamble. The barren local scene numbers an immature border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), his wife Lou Ann (January Jones), adulterous local diner waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo; excellent), and corrupt local cop Belmont (Dwight Yoakum).
When Pete learns that Mike shot Melquiades but that Belmont intends to let it drop, he kidnaps Mike, forces him to exhume the body, and directs the souls — two alive and one dead — toward Melquiades’s village of Jimenez across the Mexican border. Pete wants his friend properly buried, but the journey hinges on myth. What begins as a story about indolence and uncaring is made to veer, through lucid madness, into a macabre but beautiful morality play. Jones and Pepper are exemplary and the scene-framing exhilarating: the exhumation, for example, is conducted as a high school football game plays out in the glazed background.
In terms of portraiture, Jones’s movie (written by Guillermo Arriaga) has much in common with John Sayles’ “Lone Star,” another film that dwells handsomely on the brutal idiosyncrasies of Texas. But make no mistake, this is a masterpiece, and more important a story that bravely runs counter-clockwise to short attention spans.