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Tommy Lee Jones makes directorial debut

‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ premiered at Cannes
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you die in a far-off land and need a pal to haul your corpse home, Tommy Lee Jones is your man.

In “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” Jones’ feature-film directing debut that premiered Friday at the Cannes Film Festival, the actor plays a Texan hitting the trail to take a slain amigo back to Mexico.

The scenario harks back to Jones’ TV Western “Lonesome Dove,” in which his character fetches the body of his best friend from Montana to Texas for burial.

Jones pointed out the similarities to his screenwriting partner, Guillermo Arriaga (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams”) who was unaware of the actor’s earlier trek with corpse in tow.

“It was Arriaga’s idea. I said, ‘Hey, Arriaga, I’ve already played a role where I carry a dead guy a long distance.’ And he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Lonesome Dove.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Never mind,”’ Jones told The Associated Press with a hearty laugh. “That’s about the extent of our deliberation.”

In “Lonesome Dove,” Jones plays a fiercely upright ex-Texas Ranger fulfilling a deathbed promise to his old trail buddy (Robert Duvall) to take the body home.

Journey of justiceIn “Three Burials,” essentially a Western set in contemporary times, Jones plays ranch boss Pete Perkins, who abducts his friend’s remorseless killer (Barry Pepper) then forces the man to dig up the body and accompany him with it to Mexico, where his friend wished to be buried.

The journey is taken partly out of respect for his friend’s desires, but largely as a case of vigilante justice that turns into vigilante moral instruction. The hardships of the trip through harsh desert and across the Rio Grande force Pepper’s character, an abusive Border Patrol agent, to re-evaluate his bigotry against Mexicans and his icy cruelty toward people in general.

Pepper said he would not have been interested in playing the character “if he was as mean and superficial, as lost and lonely and as pathetic as we first meet him. If he didn’t have somewhat of a journey, some form of enlightenment that would enrich him, and hopefully, the audience.”

“Three Burials” was among 21 films in Cannes’ main competition; winners were to be announced Saturday night.

Jones, who previously directed and starred in the 1995 made-for-TV movie “The Good Old Boys,” said “Three Burials” resulted from an idle comment he made while driving around in a pickup truck on his Texas ranch with hunting buddies Arriaga and Michael Fitzgerald, a producer on the film.

“I looked around and said, ‘Fellas, there’s a hell of a lot of talent in this pickup right here,”’ Jones said. “‘Why don’t we do a movie?’ They said, ‘Great idea.”’

Based on a true storyThe drama was inspired by the true story of a West Texas teenager of Mexican descent shot to death by U.S. Marines on a border anti-drug patrol as he tended his family’s goats.

“No one was ever prosecuted,” Jones said. “Many of us in West Texas found that insulting.”

Jones and his collaborators aimed for authenticity in the stark landscapes, the speech patterns, the Tex-Mex cultural hierarchies and the wry humor of people on both sides of the border.

The film is especially unnerving in its presentation of the corpse’s decay in the Texas heat. Perkins repeatedly unwraps blankets enshrouding the body, turning the cadaver into a silent third man on the trail, accusing his killer with his dead stare.

Ravenous ants swarm over the corpse’s face, its hair comes out in dry tufts and Perkins gruesomely douses it inside and out with antifreeze to preserve the flesh.

“It is a bit morbid, and the only reason it was important is because Arriaga has a morbid side,” Jones said. “He’s interested in the existence of death in life. Fine with me. I thought it was kind of cool.

“There’s a morbidity that I think makes a nice blend with the humor and the irony, and we wanted to make a movie as rich and full as we possibly could. So everything comes into play, including the kitchen sink.”