The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (15)<br/>The White Countess (PG)

Did you spill my tequila?
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The Independent Culture

It's turning out to be high season for lovers of the Sam Peckinpah school of vengeance-and-virility western. Last month, the tradition of the oater as an epic of death, brutality and ordeal by landscape was revived in 19th-century Australia in the boisterously profane The Proposition. It's revived again in a present-day Tex-Mex border drama - Tommy Lee Jones's directing debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (plain Three Burials for publicity purposes). Jones has made a tight-lipped, unforgiving film, pretty much in his own image. In it, a Texas border patrol guard, played by Barry Pepper, is beaten up, bitten by a rattlesnake, and dragged through a river on the end of a rope; Jones's own character metes out this treatment. You can't help having some sympathy for Pepper's character, even though he's a vile specimen, and you can't help feeling a twinge of concern for Pepper himself: looking at Jones's ornery black beads of eyes, you suspect he might not be the gentlest director of actors.

The first hour very much bears the stamp of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the vertiginously dislocated Amores Perros and 21 Grams. A similar jigsaw structure slowly, sardonically pieces together events in a sleepy Texan town, where Pepper's thuggish officer Mike Norton has just arrived with his bored young wife (wan, affecting newcomer January Jones). Meanwhile hard-bitten ranch foreman Pete Perkins (Jones) sardonically strikes up a friendship with a Mexican cowhand, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) - whose body soon turns up in the desert, worried over by coyotes. This leisurely, sardonic scene-setting catches the tone of a dead-end border town, from snatched motel trysts to police brutalising of Mexican immigrants. Once into its second hour, though, the film becomes no-nonsense linear, as a vengeful Perkins forces Norton to help him transport Estrada's corpse back across the border for burial.

As the film becomes a tough trail odyssey in the grand tradition, you actually wish it had been longer, to give the journey its full mythic amplitude. Although DoP Chris Menges shoots the border country with a realistic eye for texture and terrain - as opposed to The Proposition's torrid expressionism - he achieves a stark magnificence simply by filling the screen with the landscape and showing us the two men's isolation within it.

There's a decidedly gothic tone to the quest, and some exceptionally grisly comedy in Pete's attempts to preserve his dead buddy - burning flies off his face with liquor, siphoning anti-freeze into his mouth, while the late Melquiades sits quietly mouldering, looking like a startled extra from The Hills Have Eyes.

Three Burials may seem a punitively macho film, as unforgiving as its director-star's sand-blasted, permanently aggrieved face (he looks as if someone has just kicked his horse and spilled his tequila). But it's also intelligent, unexpectedly tender and - mixing English and Spanish - very political, a passionate tribute to the Mexican-ness of Texas. Among recent films made by actors-turned-directors, Jones's is surely the least ingratiating: he clearly doesn't give a damn about pleasing anyone but himself, and doing honour to a genre he loves.

Critics tend to regard the films of Merchant and Ivory as cinema at its most genteelly decorative - a view I clung to religiously for years, until I realised how eccentric, even ragged, their work could be. The White Countess is the duo's final collaboration, following Ismail Merchant's death last year, and while it's hardly a masterpiece, it's far too ambitious and wayward to dismiss as a studious costume pic. Scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro (and something of a companion piece to his novel When We Were Orphans), the film is set in Shanghai in its cosmopolitan 1930s heyday. It recounts a tentative platonic romance between Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind, traumatised American diplomat, and Sofia (Natasha Richardson), who supports her family of down-at-heel Russian aristocrats by working as a hostess in a louche nightspot.

The film is built around a richly odd metaphor: Jackson dreams of opening his own club, to be distinguished by an authentic dash of "political tension": Shanghai's agonies, prior to the Japanese invasion, captured in miniature between four gorgeously lacquered walls. The White Countess is sometimes sluggish, cumbersomely wordy and overwhelmed by the richness of its production values.

And yet, much of the film strikes a distinctively strange, melancholic tone, with an edge of Altman in the nightlife scenes. Asian art cinema's star DoP Christopher Doyle makes Shanghai's splendour and misery vivid, although he doesn't thicken the air quite as magically as he can. And although Natasha Richardson is never more than elegantly wooden, Fienne's twitchy, obsessed delicacy is riveting throughout. No less than Three Burials, this seems a film that its makers undertook purely to satisfy themselves. It's a white elephant, but an auteur's white elephant - shambling but strangely magnificent.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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