Screenplay : John Sayles
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Chris Cooper (Sam Deeds), Elizabeth Peña (Pilar Cruz), Joe Morton (Delmore Payne), Miriam Colon (Mercedes Cruz), Ron Canada (Otis Payne), Matthew McConaughey (Buddy Deeds), Kris Kristofferson (Sheriff Charlie Wade), Clifton James (Mayor Hollis Pogue)
"Lone Star" opens with the discovery of a human skeleton half-buried in the South Texas desert, and although this mystery forms the central core of the film, it is so densely wrapped in intertwining subplots and characterizations that it's easy to forget about it.
Independent writer/director John Sayles ("City of Hope," "Passion Fish") has fashioned an incredibly diverse, complex, and intriguing film that explores a multitude of subjects, enough to fill at least four lesser films. Any one of his subplots feels strong enough to stand on its own, yet Sayles pares them down enough so they all fit together harmoniously. In the short span of two hours and ten minutes, he successfully weaves a tangled web containing the tale of a forty-year-old murder mystery and several generational stories of fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, all of which explore the penetrating subject matter of race relations on the Texas/Mexico border, redemption, hypocrisy, and the nature of broken relationships.
Sayles has always been a master of immersing his films in their time and place. Here he does no less than his best work, making a small town into an intimate microcosm of the troubled borderland, with its conflicting cultures, languages, and historical perspectives. Sayles sets the tone early during a school board meeting, where the minority Anglos complain bitterly about a Hispanic teacher named Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena) and her choice to teach about the Mexican-American war from both sides. "We won, we get bragging rights," says one white man.
However, this "Anglo is better than Hispanic" mentality is not reserved only for the whites. Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), a successful Mexican restaurant owner and Pilar's mother, is vigorously pro-American. She has spent the past forty years trying to forget her Mexican culture, and when her Hispanic cooks and dishwashers speak to each other in Spanish, she barks at them, "In English, please! We are in the U.S." And when she sees a young couple sneak across the border, she quickly goes inside and calls the Border Patrol instead of sympathizing with their plight.
But Sayles does not contain his observations on race relations only to Hispanics and Anglos. The most misplaced group in town is a small minority of blacks, who find that the only place they feel comfortable at is a bar owned by Otis Payne (Ron Canada). Otis, a wily old man who was once a much more wily young man, had a son named Delmore who he never fathered. Delmore (Joe Morton), now a successful and straight-laced Army Colonel who holds horribly bitter feelings toward Otis, has moved back into town with his wife and son to work during the remaining three years before the local Army base is closed down. The scenes between Delmore and Otis speak volumes about the current rash of fatherlessness in America, but it also poises the possibility of redemption for anyone.
Looming over all these proceedings is the mystery of the skeleton in the desert. Early on we learn that the skeleton belongs to Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a crooked, murderous sheriff from the late 50's who skipped town with $10,000 of the city's funds and was never heard from again. The mystery is who killed him, and Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) think it may have been his father, a local police legend named Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Most everybody in town loved Buddy, because he was willing to stand up to Charlie Wade, which is the primary reason Sam thinks he killed him. Sam knows that Hollis Pogue (Clifton James), a former deputy of Charlie's and now city mayor, knows something about the last night Charlie was seen alive, but Hollis won't say a word.
The first thirty minutes of "Lone Star" are somewhat perplexing because Sayles introduces us to character after character, some in the present, some in flashbacks, some in both. He doesn't have a very exciting directorial style, so it takes some time to get involved in the plot. For a while, you have the feeling that there is no way all this characters can be related, but they are. And those relationships are not strained contrivances.
By the last third of the film, Sayles begins to pull all the threads together, revealing secrets and tying up loose ends. And, even when you thinks he's done, he springs a few more on you when you're not expecting it. When the film has ended, he has answered questions that have been confounding you since the film started and even answered some questions you never thought to ask. But, true to his nature, he leaves just enough open to interpretation, because Sayles is wise enough to know that in a disconcerted land like the border region, not all questions have immediate answers.
©1997 James Kendrick