'Lone Star' Unearths The Bones Of A Cinematic Masterpiece.
By Tom Danehy
THERE IS A scene about two-thirds of the way through Lone Star, John Sayles' wonderfully intricate tale of life in a Texas border town, that leaves the moviegoer with a deep sense of melancholy.
Frontera town sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) has gone to see his ex-wife (Frances McDormand), who's more than a little nutty even when she's on medication. She's wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, a Houston Oilers hat, and watching a tape of a Texas A&M football game. In the middle of the conversation, she asks in all sincerity if he watched the recent NFL draft.
When he says no, she launches into an animated speech about how teams have prospective players tested, followed, interviewed--everything short of taking stool samples. She then pauses and adds, "That's a lot more than any regular people does when choosing the person they're going to marry and spend the rest of their life with."
That one little moment provides more insight into the human condition than all of the summer blockbusters put together, all of the stunt-and-special-effects orgies for which you offered up your money to the god of overpriced popcorn. This leaves you a little bit sad for the current state of American filmmaking--stale and shallow and aimed with laser precision to stop at the optic nerve and not enter the brain.
It leaves you a little bit more sad that the google-plexes can't free up even one screen for a film like this, one brimming with ideas, emotions and nuances. If they could, maybe someone would get frustrated at not being able to get in to see Independence Day and "settle" for a seat in half-empty Lone Star, where they would delight in the almost-lost art of story telling.
Instead, Sayles' epic, wrapped around a 40-year-old murder mystery, will have a quiet run at The Loft, where the average moviegoer will pass it off as one of those "art-house" things destined to slip quietly into video-dom. Sayles, then, is left to preach to the converted, those of us who loved the wry politics of The Brother From Another Planet, the wrenching realism of Matewan and the clever retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.
Lone Star is not one story told well, but several told exceedingly well. Besides the aforementioned murder mystery, it offers up a knowing look at ethnic tension between Anglos and Hispanics, a sly take on small-town politics, with even a love story thrown in--one that is satisfying in its passion and clever in its clumsiness.
Writer-director-editor Sayles takes his time and gets everything right. He invests his characters with an all-too-rare depth and complexity, marked by the actors' singularly focused Oscar-winning performances. And he manages to do so with 10 or 12 characters, not just one.
Every character in this movie is like someone we've known, someone we've heard about, or someone we'd like to be. Sayles takes these characters and weaves a bold multi-ethnic tapestry full of bitter divisions and small compromises, a fabric torn by bitterness but held together by threads of humanity. The Anglo-Hispanic tableau is richly drawn and would be completely satisfying on its own, but Sayles ups the ante by adding another ethnic group to the mix, some African-Americans tied socially and economically to the area by the nearby Army base. He deftly avoids the use of generalizations or false integrity--two equally annoying Hollywood tendencies--instead allowing his story to unfold naturally.
The plot (or at least the main plot) of this film, told in seamless flashbacks, involves the discovery of some skeletal remains in the desert. Sam Deeds realizes almost immediately that it's probably one-time sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a crooked and hateful man whose only consistency was that he mistreated and stole from everyone equally. Wade went missing one night after a verbal run-in with his deputy Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), who succeeded him and became a town legend to everyone but his son, who doesn't even try to live up to his dad's reputation.
The townspeople didn't much care what happened to Wade; they were just glad that he was gone. Now that his bones have turned up, Sam must attempt to solve the crime, even though all clues point to Buddy, who was everything to the town and its people that Wade hadn't been.
Along the way, he rekindles a romance with a local schoolteacher (Elizabeth Pena), who's dealing with rebellious kids at home, rednecks who want the Davy Crockett history of Texas taught exclusively, and a widowed mother (Miriam Colon) who runs her restaurant with an iron fist and insists that everyone speak English around her, even though she came across the river the same way everybody else did.
The mystery ties everything together and its conclusion is inventive, but by the time we get there, we care so much about all of the characters we're glad Wade is gone, too, and we don't much care who did him. Sayles wraps up the mystery, then adds an Omigod! kicker at the end that will leave you slack-jawed till the middle of next week.
To say that this is the best movie thus far this year is to damn it with extremely faint praise. It's an absolute Godsend, reinstilling the movies with hope and creativity and the ability to entertain, enlighten and move us, all at the same time.
This is a great movie, one which will be long gone by Labor Day. Don't let it pass by unnoticed.
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