by Del Harvey
John Sayles’ contemporary western mystery is another excellent story woven with the fabric of true Americana.
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John Sayles is one of my favorite filmmakers. I never tire of his inventiveness. Especially since he usually writes his own stories as well as producing, directing and, occassionally, acting in them. Limbo, Passion Fish, Eight Men Out, Matewan, The Brother From Another Planet, The Secret Of Roan Inish, all are outstanding examples of American independent film. His appeal and his notoriety have been growing steadily since his first screenwriting job in 1978. And yet he remains steadfastly independent of the major studios, even with a distribution deal attached to one of his more recent projects.
In 1996’s Lone Star, Sayles has crafted a superb murder mystery which is also an investigation into the complexities of race and family relations. Centering on the discovery of a skeleton found in a shallow grave on a military base, Sayles jumps through several generations of families whose lives are also entertwined. The mystery of this unknown person is revealed slowly, although everyone in the desert community of Rio County, Texas, knows who it is. Family histories and old relationships are either painfully or happily brought out into the open and fit together like pieces of some broken antique clock, its ghostly ticking transporting the story to its inevitable, yet surprising, end.
Chris Cooper is Sam Deeds, the local sheriff and the son of legendary former sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Cooper and schoolteacher Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena) were high school sweethearts, until his father caught them making out at the local drive-in. They’ve never quite gotten over each other, in spite of the fact that Pena is a widower with a child. Cooper’s father may have been something of a myth to all the townspeople, but he was a repulsive father figure for the contemporary Deeds.
McConaughey owes his legendary status to the myth that he may have removed the corrupt Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) from life’s landscape permanently. Charlie had his finger in everybody’s pie, and he didn’t care who knew it because there was one thing for sure - if you crossed Charlie Wade chances are you wouldn’t live too long. But if you play the game the way Charlie Wade wants you to, such as Otis (the owner of the town’s only black night club) does, then you will prosper.
The layers of complexity cross generations of race and family, creating a rich mural, a true capturing of small-town life and social interaction. Pivotal to all connecting threads is Cooper, as son of the great Buddy Deeds. Except that Cooper has an intense dislike for Dad, and everyone in town makes him feel guilty for it. Cooper has been in several of Sayles’ films, including the very fine Matewan, and he was a key character in 1999’s Academy Award winning American Beauty. Here he carries the story quite well, much as he did in A Thousand Pieces of Gold.
Joe Morton is another recurring star of Sayles films, and he puts in a good supporting role here. Clifton James plays the mayor of Cooper’s era, who was also a deputy to Charlie Wade and close friend of Cooper’s father. The entire supporting cast is superb.
The rest of the cast is excellent. The original music is by Mason Daring, who has also collaborated on most of Sayles’ other projects, and the flavor of the Southwest is full and rich thanks to his fine work here. The cinematography is by Stuart Dryburgh, who did equally fine atmospheric work in The Piano and Runaway Bride.
John Sayles is a true American icon, and his films are like a favorite book which you hate to put down. They’re always satisfying and something of a wonderment to watch. Lone Star is no exception.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He used to work for Disney, Lucasfilm, and the Directors Guild of America.
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