Summer days in Texas the sky is crystalline blue. The ground is hard and hot and an infection from a Mesquite thorn can kill you. If you drive the 90 miles from Sonora to Del Rio you see only scrub land, fences, and oil rigs.
This beautiful, deadly, conflicted land is the most American of places. The story of Texas is the story of America. In the desert you feel a part of the fabric of the land, a compulsion perhaps born of the necessity to pay more attention to an environment that is unforgiving of carelessness, or perhaps because the workings of the world are more visible so close to the bones of the earth.
It’s hard not to be conflicted about the place given the quality of American leadership (or lack of it, depending on which side of that discussion you live on) coming out of Texas in this defining era of our history. Typical of the culture, Texas politics tends to be strongly polarized. Individuality, independence, and personal freedom are prized above almost all other gifts.
Texas has been a hot potato for all of our national memory. From before Santa Anna’s Alamo to the flaming demise of the Branch Davidians, Texans want to somehow be distinct from the country while at the same time epitomizing it. The layers of history here are a raw presence, and just below the surface the struggles between ethnicities, national identity, ideologies, and human nature blend into a sun-baked desert menudo.
This dynamic is captured and explored by John Sayles in his 1996 instant classic “Lone Star”. Set in the fictional border town of Frontera, TX, the film boils down the cultural struggles between Anglos, African-Americans, Tejanos, Latinos, and Chicanos into a mystery with 3 sub-plots that merge back together in a satisfying finale that leaves behind more questions than answers.
Looking back at the film, “Lone Star” occupies an interesting place in history. It was made in 1996, after the first gulf war but years before what is now called simply “Iraq.” Sayles’s focus on borders between lands and people seems even more relevant now, given the widening gap between Islam and the west, Christian conservatives and liberals, republicans and democrats. The impact of the dilemmas created by these artificial boundaries is a central theme in “Lone Star”. The film explores the damage caused by making and then crossing these lines in the sand, as well as the notion that hurts and evils can sometimes be reversed by ignoring them.
“Lone Star” opens with the discovery of human skeletal remains in a shallow grave outside of town. The sheriff on the crime scene is Sam Deeds, recently returned to Frontera; the son of the last generation’s now deceased but still beloved good ‘ole boy sheriff Buddy Deeds.
The plot spins around Sam’s investigation as he digs up the past. What he uncovers brings together three generations of Frontera families in a way that changes them all. Three different American experiences across ethnic and racial lines spin toward an understanding that none of them were exactly who they thought they were and their lives were not precisely what they had seemed.
The story is told in the present interspersed with flashbacks to the events of 1957 that left that body in the desert.
This is an early role for Chris Cooper as Sam Deeds, pre-dating his Oscar turn in “Adaptation” by 8 years. Cooper has always been strong, putting across his point with powerful, subtle performances. He had worked with John Sayles before in the 1987 film “Matewan.” Sam Deeds is a representative early role for Cooper, playing his character’s deep passions without histrionics. He shows more finesse than in the broad character roles that he tends to inhabit these days.
Sam’s leading lady is the sad and lovely Pilar, the Chicana girl of his teen years, his first love and whom his father, Buddy, forbade him to see without explanation. Elizabeth Peña is charming as Pilar, infusing her beauty with a longsuffering natural strength and sorrow. The scenes between her and Cooper are subtle and realistic. She seems to get shoe-horned into “ethnic” roles, such as in “Tortilla Soup” (a trifle of a film I enjoyed, by the way, a Latino remake of “Eat Drink Man Woman”) but she deserves less obvious roles, she’s a very accomplished actor.
The supporting performances are first rate, featuring small parts for Kris Kristofferson, Frances McDormand, Joe Morton, and a very young Matthew McConaughey.
“Lone Star” is an ambitious film with compellingly spare cinematography and only enough acoustic guitar riffs to move it along and set the tone. The film features an interesting and (now) over-used device to move between present and past. In fact many of its style elements which were fresh and innovative in ’96 have morphed into almost de rigueur signatures of indie films since. The DVD package is a standard edition transfer without any note-worthy extras. This is one film that could actually benefit from an updated re-release with added material.
John Sayles has long been recognized and remains still one of the most independent of filmmakers, bucking the “studio boutique” trend. “Lone Star” is one of his best films, enjoyable for the character studies, the contrasts of old and new, and the clash of cultures as they attempt to blend through force of history, circumstance, and passion.