Rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) kidnaps Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a young officer of the U.S. Border Patrol, who accidentally shot Perkins’ Mexican friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) and quickly buried the body without reporting the death. The body was discovered, identified and reburied in a cemetery, but the local sheriff did not investigate the circumstances of Melquiades’ death. Pete Perkins forces Mike Norton to dig the body up because he wants to bury it in Mexico in accordance with his dead friend’s wishes. Pete’s dangerous journey through the Texan-Mexican border region with the dead body and his captive becomes an inner journey which challenges the conventions of the heroic quest as depicted in the western by exploring notions such as masculinity and violence in both psychological and moral terms.
In the first part of the film, set near Odessa in Texas, director Tommy Lee Jones paints a bleak portrait of present-day America marked by boredom and violence. The big attraction of this otherwise dead place, dominated by anonymous trailer homes, is the shopping mall, which is equally grim. The peaceful wide and empty landscape is far from the ideal vision associated with the American Dream of freedom and happiness.
America is no longer the Promised Land or the land of the second chance: the poor Mexican immigrants are hounded by the men of the Border Patrol, Mike being one of the most zealous and aggressive who does not hesitate to physically assault his victims, among them a young woman. Violence is clearly his way of demonstrating his masculinity and compensating for his sexual frustrations. An enthusiastic reader of porn magazines, Mike has anal intercourse with his wife (January Jones) in their kitchen while they both stare at the television screen. The only sounds in this scene come from the television itself, underlining the emptiness of the couple’s relationship.
Most of the heterosexual relationships in the film are dysfunctional. Rachel (Melissa Leo) is unfaithful to her husband, who continually spies on her from the kitchen of their diner, where she works as a waitress; the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) suffers from erectile dysfunction. The film’s critical examination of an aggressive but powerless manliness culminates in Mike’s transformation into a captive.
This first part of the film is dominated by interior shots and cold colours, such as those of the diner, which is painted blue. The very many flashbacks blur the line between past and present and point to the pervasive dullness in the town, where life continues as before and unaffected by Melquiades’ sad end. He was a Mexican vaquero with the status of an illegal migrant, which makes him non-existent even after his death, an occurrence which Sheriff Belmont tries to cover up.
The complex flashback structure, a perfect example of modern storytelling, stands in complete contrast to the second part of the film. Here, the journey is narrated in a linear manner (interrupted only by a few shots related to events that take place in Odessa) and this is in keeping with the centuries-old setting: the primeval landscape close to the Mexican border. The hostile but majestic scenery – bizarrely shaped rock formations, arroyos, the endless desert – contrasts sharply with the sterile and inhuman modern world, and this uninhabited region is like an empty space and thus a highly appropriate setting for a journey of self-discovery.
Not unlike the hero of many myths from all over the world, Mike is subjected to a number of ordeals, but in his case, he is unprepared for this Calvary-like experience, which is tragic and comical at the same time. Pete mercilessly rushes him through mountain and desert regions, forcing him to sleep near Melquiades’ decaying corpse. Mike’s body is affected too, for his transformation is physical as well as psychological. Close to starvation, he is covered in dirt and bruises, and his leg is swollen following a snakebite.
The journey is a succession of physical and mental trials of endurance, and it also provides opportunities for various encounters. There’s the old blind man who lives alone in the mountains and is waiting desperately for his son, then the young Mexican woman whose nose Mike broke during one of his missions as a Border Patrol officer but who tends his snakebite and saves his leg. Mike, the racist, is repeatedly confronted with people who reject prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Pete speaks Spanish and helped Melquiades to find work and shelter despite his illegal status. Neither the men who share their food with Pete and Mike nor the others in the cantina care about the identity of the two American visitors.
Subtler than being the mere reversal of the journey made by Mexican economic refugees, their journey shows just how arbitrary and absurd all borders are. The young girl in the cantina plays Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 3 on the piano; the Mexican vaqueros are watching an American soap opera on television by their campfire. Mike, who recognises the episode – it is the one that was being shown when he was having intercourse with his wife – is profoundly shaken. Global culture obliterates the frontier even more effectively, showing just how much the two cultures in conflict constantly overlap.
Pete’s obstinately insistent attitude leads beyond the simple matter of exacting revenge on the man who shot his Mexican friend and then acted like a coward by leaving his body to the coyotes. He finds out that the woman in the photograph Melquiades gave him is not at all his dead friend’s wife and also that nobody knows of a village called Jiménez, which Melquiades claimed was his home. “There is no Jiménez. Wake up!” shouts an exasperated Mike. Not unlike many American heroes, including those played by Tommy Lee Jones in his previous films, Pete continues his quest obsessively and at one point declares that some ruins in the middle of nowhere are Jiménez. His desire to fulfil his friend’s last wish is stronger than common sense, stronger than reality itself.
The journey with the dead body reveals the sterility of the American ideal of male friendship in which the destiny and needs of the living are less important than loyalty towards a dead friend. Moreover, Pete and Mike are far from being the traditional American buddy couple, who usually team up after a series of adventures. Instead of leading to a new friendship or a great reconciliation, the film offers only a glimpse of hope. The relationship between the two men, expressed through glances and gestures, hints at hatred, distrust, despair and, finally, mutual understanding. When Mike is threatened by Pete, who fires several shots at him, he begs to be forgiven, and the older man accepts this plea for forgiveness. He leaves him a horse and calls him “son”, and Mike in turn asks if Pete needs any help on his way back home, having apparently found his humanity and the road towards redemption.