John Sayles rushes in where other straight white males fear to tread. He's written screenplays set everywhere from Secaucus to Harlem to Ireland to Depression-era West Virginia to Louisiana to, with the current Lone Star, a border town in Texas. And that's just in his pet projects--his hackwork for other directors has taken place in werewolf colonies, mutant-alligator dens and even outer space.
It takes a remarkably nervy writer to break the old saw about "writing what you know" and presume to put words in the mouths of the above locales' natives, without even using the 20th-century safety of irony. It isn't enough merely to be facile at it--one can also run the risk of critical dismissal for being insufficiently "authentic."
Because Sayles works independently, usually on a shoestring, he's able to avoid dismissal by the industry. He avoids dismissal from the critics and from a small but devoted audience because he's a great composer of dialogue--possibly one of the best ever in American movies--and really good dialogue isn't common enough to quibble over the credentials of its source. Just ask actors.
Sayles is a prodigal student of talk--he aced the Harlem barroom banter in The Brother From Another Planet and the mythic blarney in The Secret of Roan Inish and the Cajun-speak in Passion Fish to seeming perfection. It sounded so unselfconsciously convincing that no one out in the audience, of any background, was likely to care that the author was some tall, gawky white boy from Schenectady. Sayles even wrote a film about a lesbian awakening (Lianna, 1983) without being roasted at the stake of outraged correctness.
His willingness to cross such aesthetic borders, and to go native successfully when he does, may have been the inspiration for Lone Star. Borders, both literal and figurative, are the theme of the film--Sayles' point, indeed, seems to be that all borders are figurative, those between countries and those between people and groups of people. He has a kid ask his grandfather if he's part Indian, to which the grandfather replies, "By blood you are, but blood only means what you let it." That, in a nutshell, is what Lone Star is getting at. And letting "blood," or borders, or any other demarcation between humans mean too much is what keeps us miserable.
More specifically, Lone Star is the story of a long-delayed murder investigation. Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), present-day sheriff of tiny Frontera, is the son of Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), a legendary sheriff and local hero of decades past. Buddy is particularly remembered for having "run off" his corrupt, brutal predecessor, Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), but when a skeleton is discovered on a desolate nearby Army base, Sam comes to the obvious conclusion: It's the mortal coil of Charley, and Buddy was the killer.
As he probes the case, however, he sees that the answer may not be as simple as that. Sayles constructs an intricate maze of plot for Sam to navigate, involving all the factions of the town; all the people and groups with borders between them--blacks and Mexicans and Anglos, estranged fathers and sons, and even long-lost, star-crossed lovers. Sam has carried a torch for his high school sweetheart (grown up rather well into Elizabeth Pena), and she for him, and their romantic troubles as kids are one of the many keys to the mystery.
The downside of Sayles' films is that he's almost as inept at pacing as he is good at dialogue. I loved listening to Lone Star, and I loved watching it in that I liked the unactorish faces of most of the cast--when Cooper and Pena at last consummate their affair, they look like real, unlacquered human beings, and it's very sexy. But except for a couple of flashbacks depicting Charley's savagery, there isn't a moment in the film that I'd call suspenseful. The big revelation scene elegantly snaps together all of Sayles' seemingly digressive subplots, but the film doesn't build toward this moment--it ambles toward it. And as apt and coherent as the mystery's solution is, it isn't shattering. When the good-ol'-boy mayor (Clifton James) observes how it takes a big boat loaded with apparatus just to catch a little fish, there's the echo of an analogy to the movie itself. Yet watching Lone Star gives the same pleasure as sitting in a boat fishing--quiet absorption.
Sayles is also perfectly willing to stop the action dead for real digressions. He gives Frances McDormand a hilarious yet poignant showcase as Sam's ex-wife, an apparently bipolar football fanatic. He sneaks in a primer on the black Seminole resistance, and he stages a painfully believable scene of Anglo and Hispanic parents arguing over how the Alamo story should be taught in their kids' school.
Strong as these set pieces are, they do nothing to advance the plot. I'd have been sorry to see them clipped out--if you're ambling instead of hustling, you might as well stop here and there and chat. Besides, these scenes do link up with the theme of erasing borders. Sayles takes his time, but, in the end, he doesn't mince words. He boils the whole theme down to a bracingly brusque three-word moral--the last line of the film.
All of the acting is good--Sayles has fine taste in actors. The cleverest casting is of Cooper and McConaughey. The rather haggard, even homely Cooper is a fully rounded person, quiet and shrewd and intelligent, with warmth under his reserve, and, deeper still, anger and sadness. McConaughey, on the other hand, is a lovely movie-style myth in his small, flashback-bound role--his face could be a computer composite of the young Paul Newman and the young Marlon Brando, and his soul is pure Gary Cooper.
Directed by John Sayles; with Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Clifton James, Ron Canada, Miriam Colon, Joe Morton and Frances McDormand.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.