LoneStar (1996)

The best of the John Sayles films, which is saying a lot. Sayles is an auteur of independent films. He wrote, directed and edited LoneStar.

It all start with two off-duty soldiers finding human bones on an abandoned Army rifle range looking for old bullets. Then a sheriff’s star is discovered among the bones. It is a mystery that that pulls the threads on other dark secrets in a Texas border county.

The film stars Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Moron, Elizabeth Pena, Francis McDormand and Clifton James.

Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) is a legend in Rio County and they are naming the courthouse in his honor. He changed the county and while not all his methods were lawful, people did not mind, because he was a vast improvement over Charlie Wade, a notorious bad man with a badge. Wade took a cut of every dollar in the county and would stop at nothing to get it, including murder. So when Wade went missing, no one really cared.

Who killed Charlie Wade?

Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) does care, he believes the bones belong to Wade and is guessing his father had something to do with it. As he investigates the mystery of the bones, he riles the memories of others and gets pushback from whites, blacks and Mexicans who remember how much better things were under Buddy Deeds.

Deputy Buddy Deeds did not like Sheriff Charlie Wade.

Sam left town to get away from his father and he does not mind if Buddy’s legacy is tarnished. This investigation is personal for Sam, and he isn’t beyond having it color his duty.

A parallel story unfolds regarding the Army base where the bones were found. The new base commander (Joe Morton) also grew up in the county and he is not thrilled to be back. He is estranged from his father, O (Ron Canada), who owns a bar in town and has a complicated past involving Charlie Wade. The son can declare his father’s bar off-limits to Army personnel. Will he?

Son confronts absentee father

Sayles’ script has yet another intertwining story involving a Mexican-American teacher (Elizabeth Pena), who is having trouble with her teenage son, and her mother, a distinguished restaurant owner who looks down on her Mexican employees. The film examines the different cultural generational clashes within families. It is amazingly see how Sayles develops these characters navigate these challenges.

Unfinished business

The film is set against changing times in Frontera of Rio County, Texas. The white population is no longer the majority, Mexican-Americans are. African-Americans are a shrinking minority, and will be even further when the Army base closes.

I’ve read numerous reviewers calling this a a modern day noir and a neo-Western film. There certainly are noir elements in the film, mysterious undertones, questions that propels the stories forward, a hero that is swimming upstream to find the truth, complex relationships that attempt to derail what you think you know, and the way the various stories are revealed.

The elected officials are not crazy about Sheriff Sam looking into Buddy Deeds death

Is it a modern Western? The film has the elements, in addition to paying homage to the adage of frontier justice and the sheriff as the most powerful figure in town.

Usually, I provide a synopsis of the film I review, but I am going to tread lightly so as to not giveaway important plot information. No spoilers here. I highly recommend this film.

LoneStar is a character-driven mystery film. Sayles is sometimes accused of being a writer first, a writer second and a director third. His films (Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish) are moody, talky, ensemble pieces. Sayles’ films do move slowly, he does not give up information easily and his endings are sometimes vague. He has a gift for dialogue and quirky characters. In Sayles’ films, everyone is flawed, just not to the same extent.

I have seen many of Sayles’ films and I have not detected a common visual style. What he has is a filmmaking style that is dictated by the story. Writer/directors like Billy Wilder, Michael Crichton, Lawrence Kasdan, James Bridges, Robert Benton, John Milius, Barry Levinson made very successful films, some of them even winning Best Director Oscars – but they were writers first, directors second. Even Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were stronger writers than directors.

As the Frontera community prepares to memorialize Buddy Deeds, and perhaps replace his son as sheriff, it also struggles with other parts of its past. There is a scene where parents and school officials debate the telling of history, in what today would be called “critical race theory” as school officials seek to bolster the role of Mexicans in the area’s past. This ignites a conflict or whether history is being reimagined or letting in some ugly facts.

Chris Cooper has the main character in the film, followed by Joe Morton and Elizabeth Pena. Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey have small, but riveting parts. Kristofferson plays the most evil, immortal character in his long career. The other featured roles are just as good, especially Clifton James as the mayor. You might remember James from several roles back in the 1970s where he played bumbling sheriffs, in Live and Let Die and Silver Streak. Here, he gives a fine, nuanced performance.


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