Forgotten Gems – Lone Star(*****): John Sayles is still the king

Lone Star – 1996

Written and Directed by John Sayles
Starring Ron Canada, Chris Cooper, Clifton James, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Frances McDormand, Joe Morton, Elizabeth Peña, Miriam Colon

Sheriff Sam Deeds: Mrs. Bledsoe?
Minnie Bledsoe: That’s me.
Sheriff Sam Deeds: I’m Sheriff Deeds.
Minnie Bledsoe: Sheriff Deeds is dead, honey. You just Sheriff Junior.
Sheriff Sam Deeds: Yeah, that’s the story of my life.

I have a collection of William Faulkner books. I have read perhaps 7 of them. I understood maybe two of them entirely, not counting short stories. I carry them with me as part of a retirement plan. Perhaps when I have a few more years, I will be wise enough to understand them better.

Sheriff Sam Deeds (Cooper) has led a life of longing. His father, Buddy (McConaughey) is a local legend. His mother is an unquestioned saint. Sam, alone and dedicated, is just the son of a legend and a saint.

The town of Frontera, Texas is on the border with Mexico. There are tensions and there are understandings, most having to do with the future, the past and race. It’s all touched off with the discovery of a skeleton outside of the military base. The evidence shows that the body is Charlie Wade (Kristofferson), the racist, crooked Sheriff before Buddy Deeds, who went missing decades before in a shroud of mystery.

Being that he is replaced by his deputy, the ultimately fair and straight Buddy, nobody looked real hard for the old, crooked Wade. Everyone has a story about the last time they saw Wade. The story stops just short of saying what really happened.

If this is the only thing that John Sayles covered in the high point of a magnificent career, it would still be a classic. This is just the tip of the iceberg that goes down into the depths of a deep sea of the human condition. If there is one film that shows a completely honest viewpoint of life on the border of so many things.

In his investigation, Sam comes across a local teacher, Pilar (Peña). Her son has been brought in for installing a stolen car stereo and Sam helps get him out with a warning. Sam and Pilar have a past, and it’s simmering even after she’s married, had children and then widowed. Sam went away, too. He got married, worked for his father in law, then divorced. After Buddy died, the town leaders said they’d back him in a run for Sheriff.

Their parents didn’t allow them to be together back when they were teenagers. Absent no other ideas, the two assumed it was because Buddy was white and Pilar is Mexican. They left it at that and started on other, miserable trajectories.

Pilar’s mother Mercedes (Colon) is a council woman and the owner of a popular restaurant. She is assimilated and a very practical woman. Mother and daughter are at opposite ends of most things, just like Buddy and Sam had been. The reconciliation of Sam and Pilar stirs many things. Sam needs closure. On the case and on whatever it was between himself and Pilar.

The people who found Wade worked for the base, and the base is run by Del (Morton). He grew up in Frontera as the son of local “black” bar owner, Otis (Canada). Soon after he arrives back in town, Del’s son witnesses a shooting and is sent out back to avoid being caught up in the mess. Otis has ties that run deep with Buddy Deeds and he knows something about what happened to Charlie Wade.

Everything in Frontera seems to have a tie to Charlie Wade and to one another. They are a community that works together in important ways. There is a divide that threatens to tear them all apart. There’s an accepted amount of seeming discrimination by the older generation. Then there’s the younger generation that doesn’t seem to understand why the lines are drawn with a wink that is hard for them to discern. There’s an even younger generation with an even more diffracted view.

The plot is so involved, it’s even hard for me to describe beyond broad strokes. Sayles is no stranger to layered story lines. His Matewan and City of Hope are just two examples of the build up to similar themes and complexities. As good as those films are, this is the masterpiece. It’s the first film I would show anyone who wants to understand what it is to be human on planet Earth.

If Star Wars started my fascination with cinema, Lone Star helped my understanding of its power to evolve. There are no special effects beyond what one might see in a well run stage play. The acting and the story is perfect in its ability to show humans at their best and worst. Often in the same day.

Cooper has had a good career. His ability to show wisdom, professionalism and a laconic demeanor that underscores a passion is just the right mixture for a Sayles’ lead. He worked with Sayles’ many times, including most Matewan.

Cooper and Peña, one of the great onscreen couples

Peña shows the same traits and seeing her makes one weep for her passing in 2014. There was never a role that she just sleepwalked through. Her work here approaches the best work she’s ever done. Pilar has the same understanding, the same type of wisdom…and the same frailties.

Joe Morton, Ron Canada, Miriam Colon and Clifton James all give performances of a lifetime. They are essential pieces of a puzzle that is clear to see for anyone who can remove themselves to view it plainly. I have seen this film perhaps twenty times and each time I see the puzzle more clearly.

This film is just like a Faulkner book, in that respect. I look forward to the day in which I understand every word and frame of it. In English, or otherwise. Someday, I hope to be worthy enough of its message.

(***** out of *****)

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