Between this terrific movie and the superb Brokeback Mountain, the Old West ain't what it used to be. In the long keening cry that is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which marks Tommy Lee Jones's feature-directing debut, a grizzled cowpoke (Jones) in today's Texas seeks vengeance after an illegal Mexican coworker (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is killed and no one seems to care. Jones kidnaps the bullying lawman (Pepper) who accidentally shot his pal, forcing Pepper to join him and the rotting corpse on a meandering journey by horseback from Texas to Mexico. During the trip, the pair face some hard truths about themselves, the dead man and the imperfectness of the human condition.
Three deftly strikes a balance between cynicism and hope. It's also frequently funny. Jones, sly and purposeful, and Pepper, on edge and lost, are excellent. Plus, Leo offers a piquant turn as a clear-sighted waitress sleeping with Jones, her husband and the local sheriff. (R)