'Three Burials' digs uneven ground

Tommy Lee Jones stars in and makes his directorial debut in the uneven "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," set in the Rio Grande territory between West Texas and Northern Chihuahua, Mexico.

The screenwriter is Guillermo Arriaga, whose "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" share with this film an intricate time structure and a feeling for hard-baked violence.

Jones plays Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman whose friend and co-worker, Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo), is accidentally shot by a border patrolman (Barry Pepper) who doesn't own up to the deed. Unlike the local law enforcement, Pete figures things out pronto and commandeers the man across the borderlands with his friend's corpse in tow. His goal: A proper burial to fulfill Melquiades' last wish.

Pete's odyssey takes in a fair amount of ground, and along the way we are made to observe the resilience and injustices of the territory's mixed cultures. If Jones were a more accomplished director, and if the relationship between Pete and his captive wasn't so schematic, this movie might have been worthy of Sam Peckinpah.

It's certainly his kind of material, ravaged and tender. It's still worth seeing as a hickory-smoke tale of contrition and redemption. Grade: B

Rated R for language, violence, and sexuality.

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