by Rob Gonsalves
'Lone Star' begins with a skeleton in the sand. Some people in the Texas border town of Frontera wish it had stayed buried; others, like the decent Sheriff Sam Deeds, wonder what secrets the bones can tell the living. Deeds, a man of intelligence and compassion, recognizes the remains as a metaphor for the skeleton in Frontera's closet -- evidence of past racism and violence bleeding into the present. It may also be a skeleton in his father's closet.Leave it to John Sayles to elevate this mystery to an essay on the larger American mysteries. Sayles, a novelist turned screenwriter turned director, spent the first half of his filmmaking career using the camera as an extension of his typewriter. His work was sharply written but technically rough and awkward. Somewhere around City of Hope (1991), Sayles became a born-again director; his subsequent efforts, Passion Fish and The Secret of Roan Inish, were near-perfection. Lone Star is the latest chapter in Sayles' ongoing great American novel.
"John Sayles classic."
Sheriff Deeds (Chris Cooper, the star of Sayles' ambitious but wearying Matewan) is a second-generation lawman, and the Frontera natives never let him forget it. His father, the legendary Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), was the town's previous sheriff; Buddy got off to a good start -- so goes the story -- by expelling his own predecessor, the corrupt, racist, and brutal Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). Sheriff Deeds suspects that the sun-bleached bones may be Charley's, and that Buddy was the one who gave the corpse its dry funeral.
That would be enough for one reasonably compelling movie. But Sayles digs deeper. Lone Star, it turns out, is only marginally "about" Charley and Buddy and the skeleton, in terms of the screen time they get (Sayles' miserly distribution of the Charley/Buddy scenes, masterfully played by Kristofferson and McConaughey, is his only slight misstep). On another level, the movie is very much about those men -- what they represent, the impact their lives and actions had on the people of Frontera.
Settling into the dust of the town, Sayles gives us Frontera as a web of emotions and memories. Every character -- the cheerful Mayor Hollis (Clifton James), the black bar owner Otis (Ron Canada), Sheriff Deeds' high school love Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) -- has roots that point back to Charley or Buddy, like vines seeking blood instead of water. Sayles doesn't pin name-tags on these people, and you do have to pay attention. But the movie repays your effort with interest.Having said all that, I don't feel that 'Lone Star' is a masterpiece (though it is one of the year's best) or Sayles' best work; I lean towards his 'Lianna,' 'Eight Men Out,' and 'Passion Fish.' This movie, subtle and enthralling as it is, ultimately saddens me: Hollywood should be releasing a 'Lone Star' (or a 'Fargo') every month. That's not John Sayles' fault; he's doing his part. 'Lone Star' shows him at his most reflective. And he has a powerful image in that skeleton: the ugly past grinning up at the present, haunting the future.
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originally posted: 02/02/07 13:53:21