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"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"

Perhaps we can't blame Tommy Lee Jones for making a movie that is only half interesting. Most movies are, because most, like "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," temper any originality with a predictable, redemptive ending.

But that doesn't stop the first one- or two-thirds of his directorial debut from saying something. Before the plot lathers up in the extended manhunt that takes up the last several chapters, "Three Burials" concerns a small Texas town close to the Mexican border where people seem to exist only if they have a very specific role to fill.

Jones plays Pete, a ranch worker whose best friend, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), has been found half buried in the desert, shot to death. Pete is sick with grief and anger, especially because the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) is more concerned with a married woman than investigating the murder. Melquiades is "a wetback," he says, and nothing more.

One of the few people who really know what happened to Melquiades is a lanky, buzz-cut border guard named Mike (Barry Pepper). Mike is one of many fine characters in "Three Burials." He may straddle Mexico out on the range, but he's a pure American white boy, completely empty of soul. A testament to his complete indifference, he waits for trouble out on the stunning, open land of a John Ford film, but longs only to look at the pages of a Hustler magazine.

"Three Burials" made its theatrical run and is now out on DVD at a propitious time. Jones deserves credit if for nothing else than anticipating the current posturing on Capitol Hill regarding real questions facing the uneasy relationship with Mexico and its citizens, many of whom long to enter this country enough to risk everything.

Jones is no better at playing anyone other than himself, even when he is the director, but his first creation is competent and enjoyable, and it goes a little way toward recognizing real people behind current headlines. S



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