Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lone Star

John Sayles is one of the greatest American directors working today, but you may not have realized that. Chances are, you’ve seen a Sayles film somewhere along the line, liked it, but couldn’t remember it ever being in the theatres. His resume is peppered with terrific, highly original films, but it’s sorely lacking in blockbusters. A partial list would include titles like Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish, City of Hope, Passion Fish, Limbo, Sunshine State, Eight Men Out, and Men with Guns. Quality films, each and every one.

Let’s go back in time a bit. In 1996, the “big” movies - the ones that garnered all the talk and awards were Fargo, Shine, and The English Patient. Virtually unnoticed was a perfect little Sayles jewel called Lone Star, which popped up on a lots of critics’ lists for the year. A murder drama which eschews big stars and violence in favor of spot-on characters and sublime storytelling, it’s an American masterpiece. I think it was the best film of the 90’s.

Lone Star is set in a smallish town near the Texas/Mexico border, where whites, blacks, and Hispanics live together in a cultural gumbo. There are frictions at work in this place, as evidenced by a school board meeting where there are arguments over whose version of local history is going to be taught in school. The film, however creates the palpable sense that these people really have lived together all these years, disagreements and all. That’s the thing about Sayles’ work – He never fails to create a strong sense of place in his films, and LS is arguably the best example.

Sheriff Buddy Deeds has long been dead when the movie begins, but his presence is felt throughout. Deeds was a larger-than-life legend, and in the estimation of the older townsfolk, the current sheriff comes up short in comparison. Especially since the incumbent is Buddy’s son Sam. (Chris Cooper). The film doesn’t quite avoid delving into the relationship between the son and his late father, but it doesn’t put it up front, either. There’s a great scene early on when Sam speaks at a ceremony honoring his father, and there is a definite undercurrent of bitterness in Sam’s words.

The tension between generations is the theme that pervades Lone Star, and it’s interwoven stories are all variations on the same topic. Besides the two Deeds, there’s the all-business Army officer (Joe Morton) who has returned to his hometown to run the local base, and who encounters his estranged father. And finally, there’s Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), the teacher who re-kindles an old romance with Sam to the consternation of her mother. All these story lines could have easily created a mish-mash of a movie, but the film is remarkably fluid.

The murder I spoke of at the beginning involves a long-dead skeleton found on the Army base. An old Masonic ring and a badge are discovered with the body, and Sam begins to realize that the dead man is Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a murderous redneck who was the Sheriff before his father. As Sam pieces the story together, he begins to suspect that the murderer may well have been his own father.

This theory, of course, doesn’t much wash with the town’s fathers. A fishing-hole encounter with the Mayor (one of Buddy’s old deputies) illustrates this and shows off Sayles talent for writing dialogue that says a lot more than it seems.

“Hey, look at all this, will ya? Tackle, boat... All just to catch a little ol' fish minding his own business down at the bottom of the lake. Hardly seems worth the effort, does it, Sam?”

Lone Star is full of flashbacks – That’s how we get to meet Charlie Wade, and one of the true pleasures of this film is the way Sayles recreates the past. He will hold the camera on characters in the present, and then sweep it away from them to the same characters in the past, without a cut. It’s potentially a confusing technique, but it works wonderfully here, as in a scene with Sam and Pilar fades into a scene with the two as teenagers, and also where a character hiding from Sheriff Wade under a bridge morphs into a shot of Sam standing on the same bridge years later. It’s virtuoso use of the flashback technique.

The denizens of Lone Star are people who have had past events dredged up, and everything they thought they new is altered. Sam’s investigation into the death of Charlie Wade leads him eventually to the truth – But it’s not the truth that we expected.

His renewed love with Pilar isn’t exempt from thunderbolts from the past either. The film drops a revelation on him about Pilar that I will not spoil for you. The film leaves hints about it, but it would take a very astute viewer indeed to catch them. The film’s finale is a wonderful summation of it’s themes, and although the plot would seem to have led the two lovers into a dead end, Sayles pulls it off.

The conversation between Sam and Pilar occurs in an old, deserted drive-in theatre, and it’s beautiful in its sense of regret and longing. The whole thing lasts a few seconds, but it encapsulates years of resentment, deceit, …and love. Pilar’s final three words are so pitch-perfect and simple that they still astound me, even as many times as I’ve seen this.

"Forget the Alamo."

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