Pitched somewhere between Sam Peckinpah's elegaic The Ballad of Cable Hogue and those existential western novels penned by Cormac McCarthy, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a true original. Featuring a ferociously wonderful old-coot performance by director/star Tommy Lee Jones, the film ranges seamlessly from comedy to pathos, with a strong subtext suggesting the ways in which the U.S. and Mexico are inextricably bound to each other.

Set in the dusty barrenness of West Texas, Three Burials centers around the accidental killing of illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Castillo) by U.S. Border Patrol officer Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). It seems Estrada had been working as a local ranch hand, and had formed a tight bond with grizzled cowboy Pete Perkins (Jones). When Perkins realizes that the local sheriff, Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), is going to ignore the killing, he kidnaps Norton and makes him dig up Estrada's grave. Perkins then forces the border cop to accompany him as he sets out on horseback across the Rio Grande, where he is determined to bury Estrada in his native village.

From here on in, the film takes on the quality of B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Perkins and Norton struggling their way across a brutal, exotic and beautiful Mexican landscape. Featuring everything from the sadistic way in which Perkins treats Norton to a poisonous snake bite to the pleasures of an isolated cantina, this section plays like a macho adventure film in classic Warner Bros. mode.

But what makes the project really work is Jones' ability to master the story's many shifts in tone, and its fractured time structure. Flashbacks interspersed throughout Three Burials illuminate not only how the relationship between Perkins and Estrada grew and deepened, but reveal the tragic accident from different points of view. In addition, the picture segues effortlessly from grotesque moments (Perkins' loving attention to Estrada's rapidly deteriorating corpse) to domestic intrigue (a wonderful Melissa Leo, who juggles love affairs with Perkins, Belmont and her own husband) and what turns out to be the ultimate mystery of Estrada's existence.

If the film has a fault, it's that the Norton character is never given a lot of depth. Brutalized unmercifully by Perkins, he becomes more an object of scorn than a real person, although Pepper's solid performance hints at depths of rage and insecurity which Guillermo Arriaga's (Amores Perros) generally fine screenplay fails to flesh out.

This is, however, the only problematic aspect of a stunningly offbeat and finely controlled directorial debut. Tommy Lee Jones may have waited until his late 50s before helming his first theatrical film, but The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has made the delay totally worthwhile.

-Lewis Beale