Most people recognize Tommy Lee Jones’ calling as an actor. The Academy sure does, giving him one Oscar in 1993 for “The Fugitive” and a chance at another one in 2012 for “Lincoln.” But what few people know is that if Jones gave up his day job and took up directing full-time, he would be incredibly successful.
Just take a look at his debut feature, “The Three Burials of Meliquiades Estrada,” and tell me the man does not have serious talent. While I was watching it, I kept thinking about all the reasons why I shouldn’t like it or that it shouldn’t be working. But it did, and for that very reason, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
Jones’ film is based in a strong script from Guillermo Arriaga, one full of tenderness and deliberation. And perhaps the best sign of a good director is to let the story shine brightly and take precedence. Though maybe Jones’ style isn’t flashy, the appropriately ambling pace and quaintness of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” feels like just the right fit.
Jones also lends his acting talents to the film, bringing the movie an undeniable sense of Texas gallantry and steadfastness. As Pete Perkins, a noble ranch hand, he goes to whatever means necessary to ensure that his friend Melquiades Estrada gets a proper burial. It takes him across the border, crosses his paths with various interesting people, and entangles complicated alliances. But he will keep his word to Melquiades at all costs.
He also manages to get fine performances out of his cast, which includes a very physically committed Barry Pepper along with January Jones and Melissa Leo well before they were mainstream names. But the real triumph of “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is, well, Tommy Lee Jones himself. He makes the film feel so natural and easygoing, almost as if every other movie is a NASCAR racer and his is a horse clipping along. It’s that kind of brilliant direction where you almost think the film is directing itself. Pretty impressive for a first film.