Human Relations the Star of Sayles’ ‘Lone’ Mystery
In the hot, barren desert outside the border town of Frontera, Texas, foolproof indicators of foul play come to light: a weathered sheriff’s badge, a Masonic ring, a human skull. “Lone Star” chooses to open like a traditional murder mystery, but little else about this film hews to a Hollywood path.
For the writer-director here is John Sayles, a role model for American independents, who with “Lone Star,” his 10th film and first thriller, establishes himself in the top tier of American filmmakers, independent or otherwise. With emphasis on American.
While a recognizable United States is rarely present in most contemporary cinema, Sayles’ work is different. Without sacrificing drama or watchability, films like “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out” and “City of Hope” are socially conscious in the fullest and best sense. They’re involved with what’s going on in America, with regional cultures and national values, with what it’s like to live here right now. The triumph of “Lone Star” is how well it integrates Sayles’ concerns with the heightened tension and narrative drive the thriller form provides.
Like “City of Hope” before it, “Lone Star” (with the most speaking parts ever in a Sayles film) expands to cover a wide canvas. There are at least 10 substantial characters and probably another two dozen important enough to make an impression.
Though a murder investigation is “Lone Star’s” initial hook, these people are its abiding concern. Sayles is a respected fiction writer, and he has the novelist’s passion for human relations. While plot is the engine that pulls us along, “Lone Star’s” richness in character, its insistence on creating individuality, is what makes the journey worthwhile.
Besides solving a mystery, it’s Sayles’ intention to peel back the layers of Frontera society, to explore the complex interconnections between the three communities--Anglo American, Mexican American and African American--that warily coexist in Rio County, an area where violent methods of settling disputes are not unusual.
Like Ross Macdonald, a mystery writer with similar preoccupations, Sayles is also intrigued by the way the unquiet past makes itself felt in the present. “Lone Star” flashes back and forth between 1957 and today, and has a story complicated enough to demand complete attention.
Investigating that skull in the desert is Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), a second-generation sheriff recently returned to town, the son, as no one lets him forget, of a legendary lawman. “Sheriff Deeds is dead,” a constituent pointedly informs him. “You just Sheriff Junior.”
Sam’s father was Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey in flashback), whose legend began in 1957, when as a deputy he faced down his boss, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). Smart, mean and ruthless, Wade, says Mayor Hollis Pogue (Clifton James), “was one of your ol'-time bribe-and-bullets sheriffs.” Wade and a large sum of money simultaneously left town after that confrontation with Buddy and were never heard from again.
For Sam Deeds, who never doubts that the skull in the desert belonged to Charley Wade, the investigation of the murder is a complex affair, and not only because he fears he knows who did it. For one thing, though his father was more of a power broker than a thug like Charley Wade, his moral legacy turns out to be more complicated than the public record indicates.
And Sam has unresolved issues with his dead father over the way the old man broke up his high school relationship with a Mexican American classmate. Now divorced, Sam discovers that his old sweetheart Pilar (Elizabeth Pen~a) is a widow and considers taking up with her again despite the strong resistance of her mother, Mercedes (Miriam Colon).
Sam’s investigation also leads him to Otis Payne (Ron Canada), owner of the bar in Frontera’s black section where the Buddy Dean-Charley Wade confrontation took place. Otis’ life is newly complicated for other reasons. The son he abandoned has returned as the colonel in charge of the local military base (Joe Morton), bringing with him a grown grandson (Eddie Robinson) Otis has never met.
As always, Sayles has assembled an expert cast, several of whom, including Cooper, James, Colon and Morton, have worked with him before and presumably enjoyed the experience. The most notable newcomers are Pen~a, whose dance with Cooper to Freddy Fender’s “Desde Que Conosco” is a high spot, and the always effective Frances McDormand, fresh from “Fargo,” who plays Sam’s “tightly wound” ex-wife Bunny, a woman who lives only for football.
Spread out over two hours and 15 minutes, “Lone Star” has all these threads and several more to unravel before it’s through, and if some resolutions seem more melodramatic than others, complaining seems frankly ungenerous. Leisurely yet intense (Sayles does the editing himself), “Lone Star” reveals a director whose mastery does nothing but increase. Perhaps now his audience will as well.
* MPAA rating: R, for brief language, sex and violence. Times guidelines: Sex and violence are very low-key.
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Chris Cooper: Sam Deeds
Elizabeth Pen~a : Pilar
Matthew McConaughey: Buddy Deeds
Kris Kristofferson: Charley Wade
Clifton James: Mayor Hollis Pogue
Ron Canada: Otis Payne
Joe Morton: Delmore Payne
Eddie Robinson: Chet Payne
Frances McDormand: Bunny
Miriam Colon: Mercedes Cruz
A Rio Dulce production, released by Castle Rock Entertainment. Director John Sayles. Producers R. Paul Miller, Maggie Renzi. Executive producer John Sloss. Screenplay John Sayles. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Editor John Sayles. Costumes Shay Conliffe. Music Mason Daring. Production design Dan Bishop. Art director Kyler Black. Set decorator Dianna Freas. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.