Movie Reviews

Lone Star: Murder Mystery or Slice of Life?

Written by John Sayles
Directed by John Sayles

Lone Star is one of those little-known movie gems that draws me back in again and again. I’ve already rented it twice to watch, and will probably soon add it to my permanent DVD collection. Yes, it’s that good. It doesn’t have a lot of car chases or special effects. What it does have is well-written characters whose stories intertwine once human bones and an old sheriff’s badge are discovered in the desert outside of town.

Old wounds are re-opened once the bones are discovered, and the current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) hypothesized that the remains are that of former sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who disappeared years before and was never seen again. Sam himself is the son of one of the most revered law-enforcement men in the town, and possibly the state. Living in the shadow of his father, Buddy (portrayed as a young man by Matthew McConaughey), Sam doesn’t hold the same reverence for the man as those who know his public persona. Because of this, he initially doesn’t investigate the recovery of the bones as objectively as he should.

This is a Texas town that is in line to lose the military base, Fort McKenzie, which has sustained it for many years. The base has a new commander who is African-American, Colonel Payne (Joe Morton), and just happens to be the estranged son of a local bar owner, Otis (Ron Canada). Sam is the current sheriff, trying to keep a balance between the Hispanic population and the white population.

Sam is divorced, and still pining for his high school sweetheart, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena). The two were broken up by his father and her mother years before, but the connection is still alive after all of these years. Sam finds himself drawn to her once again, while her mother copes with her own feelings about the illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the border.

Although the film centers around the murder mystery of just what actually happened all those years ago to Sheriff Charlie Wade, it’s also a slice of life as these characters intersect with the current depressed situation in town and the ghosts in their own lives. The backstory to all of these characters unfolds through a series of flashbacks which culminates on the night of Wade’s disappearance. The pacing is well-done. Many times when a story unfolds through flashbacks it feels quite disjointed and hard to follow. Here, however, director and writer John Sayles has created a story that lets us know the characters without creating a great deal of confusion. This is important not just for the flashbacks, but also because of following the wide range of characters on the canvas and their different personal conflicts. That the story didn’t descend into confusion about what was happening to who is a great testimony to his skills.

The casting in this film is perfect. Chris Cooper is amazing as Sam Deeds, and it’s a role he deserved an Oscar nomination for and didn’t get. There are no long speeches about how terrible his father was, nor any rants on how hard it was to be his son. Instead, through his quiet pursuit of “the truth according to Sam Deeds” I could see what was driving his desire to pin the murder of Charlie Wade on his father; the need to tear down his public persona to be more in line with the private one. The only time he seems to be passionate is when he’s around Pilar, and even that is a quiet passion. There is just a different fire in his eyes and a different way he carries himself and talks to her. When he’s opposite his ex-wife – portrayed brilliantly in an all-too-brief scene by Frances McDormand) – there is a quiet resignation in the face of her fanatical worship of the local football team. I could feel for Sam quite easily, and Cooper made it easy to be sympathetic toward him throughout the film.

Kris Kristofferson is a mean ol’ s.o.b. here, and he does it quite well. He’s a murderer and a racist who rules the county according to his own rules and with an iron fist (or gun as the case may be). His “disappearance” probably brought relief to the majority of the residents of the town, and especially to the minorities. Kristofferson’s portrayal doesn’t give Wade any upside, and that’s good. One bit of sympathy and it would have been hard to feel that justice was done when he was taken out of office in dramatic fashion all those years ago.

Matthew McConaughey is an actor who I have always felt has tremendous potential but has always seemed to falter. His role here as the young Buddy Deeds is more of a supporting one, but he gives a solid performance as someone who had some truly great public moments and some truly horrible private ones.

If you’ve never seen Lone Star I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of those underrated films that surprised me once I saw it, and is one I enjoy repeatedly on a quite subtle level, the way only a few films have.

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