I’m writing this a couple of days after watching the film, and I’m glad I let it settle a little bit before attempting to sum it up. I thought this was my first John Sayles film, but when I ranked it I discovered that I’ve actually seen one other one – The Secret of Roan Inish. Anyway, that one didn’t make a huge impression on me (and I don’t know that it’s really considered that much among his films, though someone could easily prove me wrong with my near total lack of John Sayles knowledge). My only knowledge of him at all really comes from his inclusion in one episode of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, from which I got the accurate, I think, impression that he’s a filmmaker who cares about the in-between bits of real life that most films skip. From that I guessed that Lone Star wouldn’t be a straightforward western, as the cover made it look like, nor a straight-forward crime thriller, as the tagline tried to indicate.
We do start with a probable crime – a long-dead skeleton unearthed in the desert near a Texas border town who happens to be wearing a sheriff’s badge. The current sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) figures it’s Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson in flashbacks), the predecessor of his own predecessor, who was his father Buddy Deeds (a super-young Matthew McConaughey). Wade had a reputation as a terrible sheriff and a terrible man – guilty of all kinds of graft and corruption, especially against the town’s Mexican and black populations, and unpredictable to boot. Not only would he take your money, he might well shoot you in the back if he felt like it. In comparison, Buddy Deeds was a legend and a hero to the marginalized.
Sayles does follow the mystery of Wade’s death out to its conclusion, but he cares much more about depicting the complex and interweaving lives of the people living in this town. Racism is huge, especially against the Mexicans – more illegal immigrants coming in every day. As the white bartender says to Sam: “You’re the last white sheriff this town’s gonna have. This bar is the last bastion.” The scary thing is, this movie was made twenty years ago, and I’m not sure much at all has changed. But Sayles isn’t making an easy us vs them statement here. One of the richest women in town is Senora Cruz, who jumps to call border patrol instantly when a group of Mexican border jumpers run by her property. That’s not even bringing in the black population, who have their own club, and their own problems as well.
If anything, this movie is TOO jam-packed with characters and plotlines – besides the murder mystery and the race relations/border town stuff, there’s Big O, who owns the black club, and his estranged son, a colonel at the nearby army base, who’s dealing with a private caught for drug abuse, not to mention his own strained relationship with HIS son. There’s the rekindling romance between Sheriff Sam and Senora Cruz’s daughter Pilar (Elizabeth Pena). There’s the older white army guy and black army woman who plan to get married. There’s the bit with Sheriff Sam’s ex-wife (Frances McDormand, who puts a lot of nuance in a very small scene). There’s all the flashback scenes with Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds, and all of Wade’s exploits, which play back into the main plot. This is a complex town with complex characters and complex relationships. None of that is bad, it’s just a lot to keep track of!
Ultimately, I appreciated Sayles filling in the edges of what could’ve been a fairly routine plot. Even the way he tied up the mystery was unexpected and yet quite fitting, especially after what we learn throughout the film. Heroes aren’t always who we thought they were, but sometimes legends have unanticipated value. I also truly loved the way the flashbacks are integrated stylistically – one character will start telling a story, then the camera will pan off to another point, and a character from the past will be there, and it comes back to the present the same way. It’s a pretty subtle way to signal a flashback, but it’s effective, and shows how present and important these events still are to this town – it’s not just a memory of something that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The things Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds did resonate through past and present and inform a lot of how the town thinks about itself and about the other people in it.
Nothing is black and white in the town of Frontera. Everything and everyone is shades of gray, which is a pretty obvious point for a film like this to make, but it doesn’t feel so much like the film is making a point as just showing life with all its warts and complications. A few of the plot threads were left a little looser than I would’ve liked (granted, also like life, but there’s a limit to how looseness I want in a film), but the film and what it’s doing has actually grown on me steadily since watching it two days ago; I suspect a rewatch with a bit of time in between would push it even higher in my estimation.
Stats and stuff…
written and directed by John Sayles
starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson
I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Lone Star entered my chart:
Lone Star > Death at a Funeral (2007)
Lone Star > Sin City
Lone Star < Never Let Me Go
Lone Star > The Breakfast Club
Lone Star > The Passion of Joan of Arc
Lone Star < Go
Lone Star > Barton Fink
Lone Star > Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Lone Star < Roman Holiday
Lone Star < The Rocketeer
Lone Star < Rebel Without a Cause
Lone Star > Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Final ranking #517 out of 3586 films on my chart (86th percentile)
It is now my #1 John Sayles film, my #2 Chris Cooper film (though he’s not on the cast list on all his Flickchart films), my #3 Social Problem Film, and my #4 film of 1996.
Lone Star was recommended by Ben Shoemaker, a friend from the Flickcharters Group on Facebook.
A few quotes…
Sheriff Sam: Mrs. Bledsoe?
Minnie Bledsoe: That’s me.
Sheriff Sam: I’m Sheriff Deeds.
Minnie Bledsoe: Sheriff Deeds is dead, honey. You just Sheriff Junior.
Sheriff Sam: Yeah, that’s the story of my life.
[SIDE NOTE: She is a 75-year-old woman playing Game Boy like a BOSS when he turns up.]
Sheriff Sam: [re: Wade’s extortion] Folks didn’t complain?
Mrs. Bledsoe: Not if you was colored or Mexican. Not if you wanted to go on breathing.
Cody: I’m as liberal as the next guy.
Sheriff Sam: If the next guy is a redneck.
Bartender: “You’re the last white sheriff this town’s gonna have. This bar is the last bastion.”
Cody: To run a successful civilization, you have got to have your lines of demarcation: between right ‘n’ wrong, between this’n ‘n’ that’n. Your daddy understood that. He was uh what-you-call-it… the referee of this damn menudo we got down here. He understood how most folks don’t want their salt and sugar in the same jar.
Sheriff Sam: Boy, you mix drinks as bad as you mix metaphors, you’d be out of a job.
Cliff: I never thought I’d see the a buddy of mine would be dating a woman with three bars on her shoulder.
Mickey: I think it’s beyond what you’d call dating.
Cliff: You’re gonna get married?
Cliff: You met her family? Think her family’s gonna be okay that you’re a white guy?
Mickey: They think any woman over 30 who isn’t married is a lesbian. She figures, they’ll be so relieved that I’m a man…
Cliff: Yeah, it’s always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.
Sheriff Sam: He ever accept cash for a favor?
Otis Payne: I don’t recall a prisoner ever died in your daddy’s custody. I don’t recall a man in this county – black, white, Mexican – who’d hesitate for a minute to call on Buddy Deeds to solve a problem. More than that, I wouldn’t care to say.
Otis Payne: It’s not like there’s a line between the good people and the bad people. It is not like you’re one or the other.
Senora Cruz: [re: border jumpers] Either they get on welfare or they become criminals.
Pilar Cruz: All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.
A few more screenshots…