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(This is from the February 6 edition. Anthony Lane is about as brilliant as they come. hf)
What happened to Tommy Lee Jones? I don’t mean that he has vanished from our sight, although some of his recent performances have felt pale and perfunctory. (“Man of the House”: that’s one to wipe from the C.V. with a high-pressure hose.) I merely wish to know what it was in Jones’s nature, or in his private history, that engraved the landscape of his face with such a calm despair-those rifts of resignation in his cheeks, the eyes that fear nothing yet seem within a blink of inexplicable tears. He spoke at the crowning of Al Gore, his former roommate at Harvard, as the Democratic Presidential nominee in 2000, but surely the disappointment of what followed has worn off by now.
Hints of tragedy are scattered everywhere, like spent cartridges, in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” the first film that Jones has directed for the cinema. Like “Lonesome Dove,” in which Jones co-starred, the story matches the man himself-essentially, a crag in cowboy boots-with the chewed and jagged land around him. He plays a ranch hand named Pete Perkins (too jaunty a name, when you look at him), who works along the Texan frontier with Mexico. The co-worker closest to him is Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), although you can’t picture the tight-hearted Pete letting anyone get too close. We see them herding and inspecting cattle together, and shooting the breeze on a still summer evening, but, as friendships go, this one feels more desultory than profound, and only viewers with advanced sexual radar, fresh out of “Brokeback Mountain,” would pick up a blip of desire between Pete and his pal.
All the more peculiar, then, that, when Melquiades is shot and killed, Pete embarks on a zealous retribution. The death was an accident, but to Pete’s fatalistic eye nothing happens by chance. You can see his point when you meet the gunman: a Border Patrol officer named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who, with his thin muzzle, razor cut, and torturer’s lips, seems just the sort to commit murder by mistake. Piece by piece, we learn the truth. Norton-loafing on a hillside with a copy of Hustler-heard the crack of a rifle, pulled up his pants, and returned fire, only to realize that poor Melquiades had done nothing worse than aim at a coyote on the prowl. This confusion of casual violence, dirt-black comedy, and bitter misapprehension is typical of Jones’s movie, the effect-and, I suspect, the purpose-of which is to leave us both wistful and soured. If Jones is not a devotee of Sam Peckinpah, notably of his movies “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” I’ll eat his hat.
ANTHONY LANE – The New Yorker
Copyright The New Yorker