Tommy Lee Jones breaks his cinematic directorial duck with this lonely tale and has gone to great lengths to make sure that everyone from the cast to the audience understands the theme of alienation that runs through the film.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, a Texan rancher who is not exactly overrun with friends, family and loved ones. Julio Cedillo plays his ranch hand, the eponymous Melquiades. As you may have guessed from the title, Melquiades is one Mexican illegal immigrant who's not long for this world.
The film starts with a series of sequences showing Melquiades' body being discovered, Tommy Lee Jones reclaiming the body from the police and flashbacks illustrating the life and death of Senor Estrada from different points of view. It's all rather slowly paced, but after thirty minutes of mild confusion and bewilderment, there's no doubt you'll be invested in the setting and story and eager to follow the film to its conclusion.
The storyline is actually rather simple, but it's a credit to the writer and director that it is played out in such an interesting way. Jones' character wants to fulfil his promise to the dead Mexican by taking his body back to his obscure hometown across the border and bury it. The local law enforcement has different ideas about the burial though and is unwilling to cause trouble with the US Border Patrol by tracking down Melquiades' killer.
Tommy Lee Jones, therefore, decides to take matters into his own hands and embarks on a rather lengthy journey on horseback into Mexico with a dead body.
This film is a ploddingly paced, beautifully shot drama that could so easily be boring and hard work if it weren't for the frequent and much needed flashes of dry humour and the emotional involvement invoked, largely by Jones' performance. Interesting, unusual and more moving than the vast majority of films released, this is one slow-burner that is well worth watching.