Right now, the United States is considering whether to grant amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants who wash cars, collect rubbish and attend to other tasks which most Americans consider too menial. The economic contribution made by the mainly Hispanic illegals was explored in the hilarious mockumentary A Day Without Mexicans in last year’s Sydney Film Festival.

A more sombre take on illegal immigrants is found in the deeply moving and yet often darkly humorous The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones and written by the screenwriter of Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Guillermo Arriaga.

When the body of a Mexican ranch hand is found in a shallow grave in the desert near the Mexican border of south Texas, the local police, led by Dwight Yoakam as the sheriff, do nothing to solve the murder. The man, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), was a close friend of ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Jones) and was an illegal immigrant from the north of Mexico.

When it comes to light that a new border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) shot Melquiades, Pete decides to take justice into his own hands and return the Mexican’s body to his home town.

Three Burials is set in the dusty deserts and canyons of southern Texas and northern Mexico where Tommy Lee Jones grew up and lives still. Without the border, the two places would be part of the same land. To some, like Norton’s young wife Lou Ann (January Jones) and Rachel (Melissa Leo), Texas is a hell hole. But to Melquiades and Pete, it is a land of freedom, of beauty and friendship.

In his signature non-linear fashion, screenwriter Arriaga weaves past and present together, yet rather than confusing, the flashback technique shows us how the various townsfolk see what happened to Melquiades. It also reveals the cross-cultural friendship between the Mexican cowboy and the American ranch foreman.

It is Jones’s debut as a film director and the script is inspired by a true incident that got under his skin. As director, he lends a sparseness to the scenes and the bilingual presentation is a sign of the film’s honesty. And as an actor, Jones does not hog the camera. To the contrary, there are more than a handful of excellent performances. Barry Pepper is especially remarkable as the patrolman who must make amends for killing Melquiades.

But this modern western is not entirely sombre. There are plenty of comic twists about American culture and its shopping malls and TV soaps as well as darker humorous moments about death that bring a richness to the political fabric of Three Burials.

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