John Sayles' "Lone Star" contains so many riches, it
humbles ordinary movies. And yet they aren't thrown before us, to dazzle and
impress: It is only later, thinking about the film, that we appreciate the full
reach of its material. I've seen it twice, and after the second viewing, I
began to realize how deeply, how subtly, the film has been constructed.
the surface, it's pure entertainment. It involves the discovery of a skeleton
in the desert of a Texas town near the Mexican border. The bones belong to a
sheriff from the 1950s, much hated. The current sheriff suspects the murder may
have been committed by his own father. As he explores the secrets of the past,
he begins to fall in love all over again with the woman he loved when they were
stories -- the murder and the romance -- provide the film's spine and draw us
through to the end. But Sayles is up to a lot more than murders and love
stories. We begin to get a feel for the people of Rio County, where whites,
blacks, Chicanos and Seminoles all remember the past in different ways. We
understand that the dead man, Sheriff Charlie Wade, was a sadistic monster who
strutted through life, his gun on his hip, making up the law as he went along.
That many people had reason to kill him -- not least his deputy, Buddy Deeds
(Matthew McConaughey). They exchanged death threats in a restaurant, shortly
before Charlie disappeared. Buddy became the next sheriff.
Charlie's skull, badge and Masonic ring have been discovered on an old Army
firing range, and Buddy's son, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is the sheriff on the
case. He wanders through town, talking to his father's old deputy (Clifton
James), and to Big Otis (Ron Canada), who ran the only bar in the county where
blacks were welcome, and to Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), who runs the popular
Mexican restaurant where the death threat took place.
the way, Sam does a favor. A kid has been arrested for maybe stealing car
radios. He releases him to the custody of his mother, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena).
He is pleased to see her again. Pilar and Sam were in love as teenagers, but
their parents forced them to break up, maybe because both families opposed a
Mexican-Anglo marriage. Now, tentatively, they begin to see each other again. One
night in an empty restaurant, they play "Since I Left You, Baby" on
the jukebox and dance, having first circled each other warily in a moment of
of these events unfold so naturally and absorbingly that all we can do is
simply follow along. Sayles has made other films following many threads (his
"City of Hope" in 1991 traced a tangled human web through the
politics of a New Jersey city). But never before has he done it in such a
spellbinding way; like Faulkner, he creates a sure sense of the way the past
haunts the present, and how old wounds and secrets are visited upon the
Star" is not simply about the solution to the murder and the outcome of
the romance. It is about how people try to live together at this moment in
America. There are scenes that at first seem to have little to do with the
story's main lines. A school board meeting, for example, at which parents argue
about textbooks (and are really arguing about whose view of Texas history will
involving the African-American colonel (Joe Morton) in charge of the local Army
base, whose father was Big Otis, owner of the bar.
scene involving a young black woman, an Army private, whose interview with her
commanding officer reveals a startling insight into why people enlist in the
Army. And conversations between Sheriff Deeds and old widows with long
performances are all perfectly eased together; you feel these characters have
lived together for a long time and known things they have not spoken about for
years. Chris Cooper, as Sam Deeds, is a tall, laconic presence that moves
through the film, learning something here and something there and eventually
learning something about himself. Cooper looks a little like Sayles; they
project the same watchful intelligence.
Pilar, Elizabeth Pena is a warm, rich female presence; her love for Sam is not
based on anything simple like eroticism or need, but on a deep, fierce
conviction that this should be her man.
Kristofferson is hard-edged and mean-eyed as Charlie Wade, and there is a scene
where he shoots a man and then dares his deputy to say anything about it.
Wade's evil spirit in the past is what haunts the whole film, and must be
then there is so much more. I will not even hint at the surprises waiting for
you. They're not Hollywood-style surprises -- or yes, in a way, they are -- but
they're also truths that grow out of the characters; what we learn seems not
only natural, but instructive, and by the end of the film, we know something
about how people have lived together in this town, and what it has cost them.
Star” is a great American movie, one of the few to seriously try to regard with
open eyes the way we live now. Set in a town that until very recently was
rigidly segregated, it shows how Chicanos, blacks, whites and Indians shared a
common history, and how they knew one another and dealt with one another in
ways that were off the official map. This film is a wonder -- the best work yet
by one of our most original and independent filmmakers -- and after it is over,
and you begin to think about it, its meanings begin to flower.