Lone Star (United States, 1996)
In Lone Star, writer/director John Sayles (City of Hope, Passion Fish) cannily blends drama, romance, mystery, and social observation into a satisfying, if slightly overlong, whole. In the hands of a lesser film maker, this material could easily have degenerated into routine melodrama, but Sayles keeps it on a consistently high level. While Lone Star is not the director's finest work (City of Hope is), it's still a very good film with enough material to stimulate energetic post-movie discussion.
Sayles has never made a recognizably "bad" movie, which is impressive considering that he has ten films on his resume. From his early work, which includes Return of the Secaucus Seven (the inspiration for The Big Chill), Baby, It's You, and Matewan, Sayles has eschewed Hollywood-influenced scripts with cliched plots. The director's more recent films have moved around the globe, embracing a variety of settings, from the steamy bayous of Louisiana (Passion Fish) and the shores of Ireland (The Secret of Roan Inish) to the Texas/Mexico border (Lone Star).
Lone Star opens in the present time frame, and most of the narrative takes place there, with the exception of several, seamlessly-interwoven flashbacks to 1957 and 1973. These are necessary to breathe life into the film's mystery and love stories, and Sayles gives us just enough to satisfy the script's dramatic needs. There isn't one moment during Lone Star when we feel helplessly marooned in the past. Thankfully, there's no voiceover -- the editing is done so expertly that there's never any need.
In 1996, the sheriff of Rio County is Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper). He's been on the job for two years, and he's filling huge footsteps. His late lawman father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey), is a local legend, and Sam won election more because of his last name than because voters respected his talents. For a variety of reasons, Sam's image of Buddy is far more tarnished than the one endorsed by the community, and, when the corpse of a bigoted ex-sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) is found on an abandoned rifle range, Sam tries his best to pin the forty-year old murder on his father.
Several other stories occur in parallel with Sam's investigation. One involves the sheriff's old flame, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), trying to explain to concerned parents why she's teaching high school history with a nontraditional slant. Instead of relying on the accepted anglo-approved text, she's attempting to show how "cultures come together in both negative and positive ways." In the meantime, she's wrestling with her feelings for Sam and coping with an unruly teenage son.
We also get to know Colonel Del Payne (Joe Morton), the new commanding officer of Fort McKenzie, which is due to close. Del's father, Otis (Ron Canada), lives in the area. He and his son haven't spoken for decades, but, while Del is bitter about the estrangement, it's impossible for the two men to avoid each other.
As is usually the case in a Sayles film, solid acting complements an intelligent script. Chris Cooper, who was in Matewan and City of Hope, gives a subdued performance as Sam, and it's his low-key acting that allows one of the movie's most difficult scenes (dealing with a delicate and controversial subject) to work. Mixing toughness and vulnerability, Elizabeth Pena carries off her scenes nicely. Kris Kristofferson, despite limited screen time, makes an effective villain. Others, like Joe Morton, Ron Canada, and Frances McDormand (the star of Fargo), provide solid support.
Lone Star contains a number of "escape hatches" -- points when the story could have moved in a safe, predictable direction, but Sayles uses few of these. The weakest aspect of the movie is the mystery, but it's also the least important. Lone Star is most intimately concerned with how different cultures and generations mix, match, and interact in a place where anglos have the wealth and power although 19 out of every 20 people are Mexican by birth. The black community, populated mainly by soldiers from the fort, is a small-but-important force. Sayles explores the bipolar issues of racial divisiveness and tolerance, both as they exist today and as they were nearly forty years ago, and does so without ever losing sight of the characters. With its numerous strengths and few weaknesses, Lone Star is an example of why Sayles' films are so engrossing despite lengths which consistently exceed two hours.
Lone Star (United States, 1996)
Cast: Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Ron Canada, Miriam Colon, Clifton James, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Mason Darling
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics