American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" tells the kind of story that John Huston or Sam Peckinpah might have wanted to film. It begins with a bedrock of loyalty and honor between men, and mixes it with a little madness. In an era when hundreds of lives are casually destroyed in action movies, here is an entire film in which one life is honored, and one death is avenged.
The director and star is Tommy Lee Jones, and the story proceeds directly from fundamental impulses we sense in many of his screen appearances. Jones is most at home in characters who mean business and do not suffer fools gladly. Here he plays Pete Perkins, the hard-working operator of a small cattle operation, who hires an illegal Mexican immigrant named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) to work as a cowboy for him. When Melquiades is killed in a stupid shooting involving a rookie agent for the Border Patrol, Pete sees that the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) is going to ignore the case. So Pete takes justice into his own hands. And not simple justice, which might involve killing the agent, but poetic justice, which elevates the movie into the realms of parable.
All the action takes place in a small border town of appalling poverty of spirit. This is a hard land for men, and a heartbreaking one for women. We meet two in particular. Lou Ann Norton (January Jones) is the wife of Mike, the border patrolman. Rachel (Melissa Leo) is the waitress in the local restaurant, married to Bob the owner but available for afternoons in motel rooms, not because she is a prostitute but because she is friendly and bored.
The story is told in links between the present and the recent past; the writer, Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams") was honored at Cannes 2005 as best writer, and Jones was named best actor. We see that the Border Patrol agent Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is violent and cruel, perhaps as a way of masking his insecurity. He beats up a woman trying to enter the country, and is told by his commander, "You were way overboard there, boy." He lives in a mobile home with Lou Ann, who watches soap operas during sex and hangs out at the diner with Rachel because there is absolutely nothing else to do.