Tommy Lee Jones is a magnet on screen; he can't help it, we can't help it, and nobody should be made to feel bad about that. What's so remarkable about Jones isn't that a not-too-easy-on-the-eyes actor—his head often looks like a root vegetable that's been pulled before its time—made it so big, then stayed so elevated on the Hollywood A-list. What's remarkable is how long Jones had previously been relegated to Hollywood workman status, as late as 1992 taking second billing to the likes of Steven Seagal, and playing characters named Quint and Mitch and Eddie Mallard in nothing movies. It wasn't until he barked out, "What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and dog house in that area," and the paying audience for a nifty remake of the old TV show The Fugitive barked back, silently and in unison, "Yes, Sir!" that Jones went from being an actor to being a movie star. Like a lot of late bloomers—if you can call Al Gore's four-year college roommate, a starter on the Harvard football team, and an actor who, from about the age of 30, never went six months without work a "late bloomer"—Jones wears about him the grace of someone who reached maturity not knowing whether it would all work out. Plenty of actors can take a hit of Binaca, tilt their good side to the camera, and play at gravitas. Jones seems to actually possess it.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Sony Pictures Classics) represents Jones' debut—other than a cable TV throwaway—as a film director, and it is a mixed success. As both its star and its director, and with the bigger name to trade on, Jones will be the inevitable public face of the movie, but Three Burials owes as much of its unique character to its screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga is best known for the scripts to Amores Perros and 21 Grams; and Three Burials is needlessly marred by the same out-of-sequence storytelling and heavy-handed silences that helped turn 21 Grams into a portentous mess. Certainly many movies have benefited from underexposition, but not every cinematic pause can be a pregnant one; and Jones—not only an actor-turned-director, but (uh-oh) an actor directing himself—frequently miscalculates the degree to which a performer can carry a story (or even a scene, or even an emotion) all on his or her own.
The slight narrative of Three Burials turns on the apparently senseless killing of a sweet Mexican vaquero named Melquiades. When the murder goes largely uninvestigated by the local police, Jones' Pete, a ranch hand, takes matters into his own hands. Jones inhabits Pete; he is his life's work, after all, what with that scrub-covered face, the growly, West Texas flute for a voice, the paunchy strut. As the movie makes plain, the one decent thing in Van Horn, Texas, is the easygoing friendship between Pete and Mel; it's a kind of crack in the border between El Norte and the poor country lying to the south, and by the pitiless logic of Three Burials, this means it is doomed. Mel shows Pete a picture of his Mexican wife and children, whom he has not seen for years, then obliges him with a promise: Should Mel die in the United States, Pete must return his body to Mexico to be properly buried. Do not bury me, he pleads, "among all the fucking billboards."
I, too, do not particularly like all the billboards, but herein lies one serious problem with Three Burials. Jones has said that the movie came about because he and Arriaga are "hunting buddies," and that "Arriaga likes to make movies about his country and its history; I want to make movies about my country and its history." Fair enough, but while we see Mexican history through the lens of Arriaga's pride, we too often see American history through the lens of casually condescending Hollywood groupthink. Mel's killer is an open secret: He is shot dead by a border patrol agent named Mike Norton who, as played by Barry Pepper, is all American History X, a kind of living embodiment of excessive force. He corrals some would-be illegals, batters them needlessly, then goes home and imposes sex on his wife (while she's stuffing a zucchini, no less!). Much of Van Horn, Texas, meanwhile, we see through Norton's wife's eyes. She has moved from Cincinnati only reluctantly, and for her the residents of Van Horn form a parade of overeating, underdressed grotesques. (January Jones is quite good, but speaking of billboards, could we make her look a little less like an American Apparel ad, please? I'd sooner believe she graduated from Choate Rosemary than the school of hard knocks.)
Three Burials is a movie drenched in the myth of The Crossing. It falls to a mean little place like Van Horn, Texas, after all, to defend some strict, prophylactic separation between the United States and Mexico; and it is Jones' and Arriaga's most intriguing observation that melting, blending, and miscegenation are the inevitable norm in such a place. Against that melting and blending, racism lashes back as a kind of desperate defense in favor of a stable self-image. Dwight Yoakam—who plays the town's sheriff, and who manages, with his little pencil 'stache, to look like a greasy ninth-grader, a heap of middle-aged ruin, and the sexiest man alive, all in one package—reestablishes the boundaries of his world with a single word: "wetback."
"No, I don't think about the myth of the West," Jones bridled recently at an interviewer. "It's not the kind of thinking I do. That's more suited to people who live in big towns on the West Coast or East Coast, people who stay under a roof, in a room, all the time." I don't care much about Jones' image of himself as the living spirit of the American outdoors, but as someone who sits indoors for 121 minutes and watches a movie that bears his name, I do care about pacing, dialogue, ideas; and to believe the moral lesson of Three Burials, you have to go along with a couple of huge leaps. The first is that Norton's wife Lou Ann, so hopelessly bored by Van Horn, and coming under the influence of an older slattern, starts casually turning tricks, the first of whom is … Melquiades! The second is that, after being bitten by a rattlesnake, Mike can only be saved by the herbal ministrations of … one of the illegals he has beaten! For a movie about the policing of borders, couldn't this one have policed a firmer one, between credibility and incredibility? Between seriousness and self-seriousness?