One of the surefire ways to establish your credentials as a hipster film buff is to state how much you love Sam Peckinpah’s bourbon-raw absurdist Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). It’s far from a great movie, but the ghoulish spectacle of sleazy, scruffy Warren Oates dragging a severed, fly-infested head (his bounty) through the Mexican desert has always lent this Peckinpah opus a special nihilistic cachet. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the first feature directed by Tommy Lee Jones, is an unabashed descendant of Bring Me the Head. This time, though, it’s an entire corpse that gets hauled through the desert, and that’s not all that’s being toted. So is a hefty parcel of racial correctness.
In a dusty nothing of a West Texas town, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a recently arrived border patrolman, accidentally kills an illegal Mexican immigrant named Melquiades Estrada. How do we know the patrolman is a Nasty White Man? He’s married to a beautiful chicklet (January Jones) he treats sexually as if she were a stray dog, he spends his idle moments masturbating to Hustler magazine, and he’s played by Barry Pepper (so riveting as the sniper in Saving Private Ryan) with the bulgy-eyed sociopathic sneer of a former schoolyard bully and torturer of small animals. Taking justice into his own hands, Pete Perkins (Jones), a grizzled ranch foreman who was Estrada’s employer and friend, kidnaps Norton and forces him to dig up the dead man’s body. They then ride on horseback into the desert, so that Estrada can receive a proper burial in his hometown.
Along the way, Perkins subjects his captive to periodic tidbits of abuse (at one point, he gets bashed with a coffeepot), but it’s all to teach him a good lesson. Meanwhile, the corpse, fully dressed, looks on, rotting a little more each hour. How fun! Three Burials has some savvy scenes of small-town gossip and adultery, and Jones plays Perkins with a brittle sadistic force that hardens the edge on the movie’s sanctimony. But it’s still a smug lesson posing as a Peckinpah deathfest.