South of Texas, in the desert. A jeep driven by one man wearing army clothes stops on the road. The man and his buddy see coyotes in the distance eating something behind some rocks. The buddy shoots the coyote, and they both go to see what's happening.
THE FIRST BURIAL OF MELQUÍADES ESTRADA
Peter "Pete" Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) goes to a south Texas hospital to find out what the forensics say about that death of his friend Melquíades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), a Mexican cowboy hired by Perkins as his aid at the ranch where he is a foreman. Pete throws up because the corpse of Melquiades is badly decomposed from having been buried in a shallow grave. Police officers are busy running after immigrants and flirting with their girlfriends, and thus take no interest in this obvious murder case.
A border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), promises his wife Lou Ann Norton (January Jones) a nice little house after moving to their Texas border town, Van Horn. Later he becomes very violent with one of the Mexican immigrants. She (Vanessa Bauche) was trying to run away during a crossing, but she stays back to defend her husband. Mike hits the lady with excessive brutality.
Pete talks to another of the patrolmen. He's come back to the location of the murder and found .223 bullet casings in the area. However, captain Frank Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) doesn't want to worry about that; he is more concerned about getting a quiet breakfast from diner waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), a married lady with whom he is having an affair.
Violent Mike is told off by his boss, Captain Gómez (Mel Rodríguez), because there may be problems arising from his vile treatment of prisoners. When Mike goes home, his wife Lou Ann is more interested in her diet - although she is pin thin - and watching a soap opera than talking to him or even having sex with him, something which she allows him to do (for the few seconds he lasts) while she is watching TV. No passion there. When he finishes, Lou Ann is still looking at Mary (Jourdan Henderson) and John (Spike Spencer), the soap opera stars who are discussing their marital problems.
Pete approaches one of the patrolmen and asks about the caliber of their ammunition, and he answers that it's .223. Although Pete doesn't say so at that moment, that detail makes him think that the his friend Melquíades was killed by one of the patrolmen of the area.
THE SECOND BURIAL OF MELQUÍADES ESTRADA
Finally, Melquíades is buried in an undignified grave at Van Horn's local cemetery.
Mike is about to look at some porn and shit on some rocks during his border watch, but he is scared away because he hears shooting. He runs away with his trousers down and picks up his rifle. He shoots somebody.
The police seem to think that Melquíades must have been involved in something fishy, but Pete does know for sure that he wasn't.
Lou Ann complains that she's bored all the time. She used to be the most popular girl at school, and Mike used to be the most sought-after guy as well. Rachel consoles her, saying it takes time to get used to life along the border, or adult life, for that matter.
Rachel invites Lou Ann on one of her motel flings with Pete (whom she also fools around with), and he brings his friend Melquíades to entertain Lou Ann. Being new to each other, they feel strange, until they start dancing to the sound of gentle country music.
Melquíades is shooting a coyote to protect his goats, a sound that scares Mike. As it turns out, Mike shot and killed Melquíades. Two patrolmen, Belmont and Gomez, are discussing it while Rachel listens to their conversation. She tells Pete. Pete demands that Gomez go arrest Mike, but he won't do that. Pete starts watching Mike's home. Their neighbor (Karen Jones) is a lady who looks a bit demented, always taking out her quiet dog and staring at their neighbors.
Pete decides to enter Mike's home at night. He points his gun at Mike in front of Lou Ann. He tells Lou Ann what her husband has done. Pete forces Mike to dig up Mel's body. He plans to force Mike to take the body to the home where Melquíades once lived. Pete had promised his friend Mel that he would bury him in Mexico, in the small town where he was born, called El Tostón.
Pete forces Mike to go riding on a horse with him until they reach the town, while Mel's body is carried wrapped in a tent on another horse.
The rest of the patrolmen go after Pete and Mike. Lou Ann seems to be all right. They all think that Pete's crazy, but Frank Belmont won't shoot him when they have the opportunity. One of the horses falls down a steep cliff. The patrolmen's car also gets stuck on the rocky dry soil.
Pete forces Mike to stay close to the rotting corpse of Melquíades, which obviously stinks. Mike wakes Pete up because carnivorous ants are eating up Mel's body. Having already filled the body with antifreeze to preserve it, Pete then pours gasoline on the body and lights it to burn the ants away.
A blind old man (Levon Helm) is listening to the radio in Spanish although he can't understand what he hears. He gives them shelter, food and water. He tells them that his son used to visit him once a month with food and money, but the son got cancer and probably died because of that. The blind old man asks them to shoot him, but Pete refuses on principle.
Mike tells Pete that he's innocent, because Mel shot him. Pete falls off his horse, and Mike, instead of helping him, tries to run away. Pete is not hurt. Pete does not shoot Mike while he runs away, although he had the opportunity to kill him. Pete and his three horses go after him, slowly. Mike hides in a small cave, but a snake bites him, so he ends up screaming for help.
A whole troop of police cars and helicopters follow Mike and Pete. They question the blind man, who tells them he saw nobody. The police leave. Meanwhile, a group of Mexicans has discovered Mike, still in his small cave and crying for help. They meet up with Pete, who asks whether they know anybody who could save Mike, and the leader suggests a lady "who is good with herbs." Pete hasn't got the 3,000 dollars which the leader requires to cross the border from the USA to Mexico. They reach an agreement.
Pete puts a lasso around Mike and forces him to cross the river into Mexico. They seek out Mariana (Vanessa Bauche), who turns out to be the lady Mike beat so severely at the beginning of the film. At first she refuses to help the pathetic patrolman. Pete asks her to cure him as he needs to keep him alive. She heals him, but possibly in the most painful way possible.
Lou Ann has meanwhile decided that enough is enough, Mike is beyond redemption. She says she is going to leave him forever, and she finally does so. Pete phones Rachel, who tells him that the patrolmen are after him and that Lou Ann has left. Pete asks Rachel to come down to Mexico and marry him, but she prefers to stay with Bob (Richard Jones). Pete is disappointed because she has told him that she loved him more than Bob.
A sad Pete tells Melquíades' body that he's about to reach home.
They make their way to El Tostón. They find a group of cowboys watching a soap opera on an old TV set, the same episode from when Mike had sex with Lou Ann in the kitchen. This makes Mike remember and cry. The cowboys asks what the performers are saying.
Pete asks two women (Maya Zapata and Montserrat de León) about the woman in a photograph he has of Melquíades. Pete finds the woman and learns that Mel's ranch was in an area called Jiménez, outside of El Tostón, but it no longer exists. At last Pete brings Mike to what remains of Jiménez, the ruins of a house. Pete recognises the place for the beauty it was.
THE THIRD BURIAL OF MELQUÍADES ESTRADA
Pete and Mike try to build a new roof with some brunches and twigs, and mend some walls. Mike has to dig a tomb with a piece of stone. Finally, they bury him.
Pete makes Mike kneel in front of the tomb and he forces Mike to say to Melquíades that he's sorry. He finally gives in - after Pete had to shoot several times. Mike cries that it was a mistake, that he didn't want to kill him, and that he's sorry.
Mike falls asleep. Pete wakes him up with a kick. Pete lets Mike go.
Mike admits that he always thought that Pete would end up killing him. To that, Pete simply replies that Mike can keep one of the horses. The horse is tied to the tree on which they put the photograph of Melquíades and his family.
Mike shouts after Pete had already gone - asking him if he will be all right.
---originated by KrystelClaire.