Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

LONE STAR (1996) ***

Written, directed and edited by John Sayles. Photography, Stuart Dryburgh. Production design, Dan Bishop. Music, Mason Daring. Cast: Chris Cooper (Sam Deeds), Elizabeth Pena (Pilar), Miriam Colon (Mercedes Cruz), Matthew McConaughey (Buddy Deeds), Kris Kristofferson (Charley Wade), Clifton James (Mayor Hollis Pogue), Frances McDormand (Bunny), Ron Canada (Otis Payne), Joe Morton (Delmore Payne), Eddie Robinson (Chet Payne), Gabriel Casseus (young Otis) and Beatrice Winde (Minnie Bledsoe). A Castle Rock release. 136 minutes. Rated R (violence)
John Sayles, who makes movies that are off the beaten track, has come up with a rather original, appropriately lengthy, and in some ways fascinating film. Nominally, is it a story of detection. Near the imaginary small town of Frontera, Texas, across the Mexican border (the Rio Grande), a skull is found by chance. Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds investigates. The clues lead him to the certainty that the deceased was Charley Wade, once a sheriff himself.

Wade was vicious and corrupt to the bone, a specialist in "la mordida" which is what Mexicans call payola or extortion. That's how you can get out of a traffic ticket south of the border, but Charley, like a gangster in sheriff's clothing, went beyond this to protection money. He was also a contemptible racist.

In 1957, Buddy Deeds, Sam's father, was, along with Hollis Pogue, one of Charley's deputies. One day, Buddy decided to run the corrupt Wade out of town. Wade was never heard from again, while Buddy became Sheriff and a local legend.

Some 40 years later, with the now-deceased Buddy being locally worshipped (a plaque is being dedicated to him), with Hollis now the Mayor,and Deeds Jr., a newish, honest sherriff who makes grafters uncomfortable, Sam becomes almost sure that it was his father who had killed Wade. In part this is wishful thinking: Sam, an estranged son, would like to place the guilt on his own father.

This is merely the start and premise of the movie. Its official synopsis runs to four pages, my own notes to seven. All this because "Lone Star" packs a huge number of local persons, acting, interacting, with connected pasts and present. Among them is widow Pilar, once Sam's high school sweetheart; Pilar's mother, Mrs. Cruz, a successful restaurant owner, also widowed; roadhouse-owner Otis Payne, known as The Mayor of Blacktown; the son he had abandoned and who now returns as Colonel Payne, there to close an Army base; Payne's boy, rather alienated; Bunny, Sam's nutty ex-wife; and many others.

One can double the number of those characters as Sayles's main tactic is the flashback that shows them in times past. The flashbacks occur without warning, so that you must be get ready for them. And, whether the time is "now" or "then," Sayles adds to his system a large number of cryptic scenes that are connected to many a dark secret.

The movie is ambitious, not limited to a whodunit but reaching into ethno-political territory. In a town where the gringos still rule yet 19 out of 20 people are of Mexican origin, problems of identity are enormous, including active or dimly felt racism, the teaching of history to students, etc. Some cases are especially interesting, like Mrs. Cruz who often says "Speak English! We're in the United States!" and denounces "wets" (wetbacks) to the Border Patrol. But it's not that simple. There are changes in attitude and the flashbacks are full of surprises.

We also get some good insights into non-white and non-Mexican matters. When the spit and polish Colonel reprimands a black private, he asks her why , in her opinion, there are so many African-Americans in the Army. He expects a patriotic reply but what he gets is "This is not our country, but the Army is a good deal."

There's not a dull minute in the film, yet it is not a touching work. It is somewhat cerebral, needs much concentration. You are kept very busy following and deciphering matters as it shifts back and forth to past and present. Some scenes are disjointed. Some characters come to a dead end after having served the purpose of making a point. Like Pilar's boy when he is arrested without reason. Like two Sergeants, one black one white, openly in love ... to show that times have changed. Like an outdoors seller who warns Sam :" Be careful when you go poking, you'll never know what you'll find." This last item is a cliche, of which this maverick movie is not entirely free.

This mystery wrapped in an enigma is also poorly miked (at least in my preview video), something that is a problem with many movies now that performers have stopped enunciating. The various accents (genuine or imitated) and Texas drawls can make some lines impenetrable.

Sayles is not prodigal with humor, a point in his favor given the seriousness of the setup. The two exceptions I can think of is that Chris Cooper, in homage to Gary Cooper who played Longfellow Deeds in Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," has Deeds as his nom-de-film. The other is this exchange. Sam: "I'm going to the other side." Colleague: "Republicans?" Sam: "No, Mexico."

"Lone Star", with its large cast of characters, is built like a thick novel or like a TV series whose material has been compacted. But contrary to television practices, Sayles is economical and un-repetitious.

At the Cannes Festival, where I missed it, the film was expected with some trepidation, yet after its showing I heard no comments whatsoever. I can see why. It must have puzzled audiences with its Tex-Mex nature, its convolutions, its dialogue that loses flavor in subtitles.

All that said, "Lone Star" is eminently worth seeing. It is beautifully produced, shot and performed. Kris Kristofferson is far better as a villain than as a hero. The soundtrack of Mexican and American songs is first-rate and, for a change, provides the right commentary. Finally this is one of the rare films that deal (intelligently too) with ethnicities in the USA.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel