Lone Star – 1996
Director – John Sayles
Starring – Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Kris Kristofferson, and Matthew McConaughey
In the mid-nineties after Sex, Lies, and Videotape opened a great many doors for as well as quite a few minds to indie films, there was a rich landscape of films like John Sayles’ Lone Star being made. Films that cared as much about characterization and plot as they did explosions and profitability. Looking back, I’ve come to the realization that, in today’s film climate, movies at the level of Lone Star are very hard to find.
The story is both simple and complex. Simple in it’s set up and execution, and complex in how it affects each of the characters tied to the story. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), son to the town legend, Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), finds a skeleton out in the desert with a sheriff’s badge. Questions about how his father came to be Sheriff begin to come to the surface, when the body starts to look like it might have been that of Buddy’s predecessor the ruthless, corrupt, Sheriff Charlie Wade. This discovery prompts Sam to examine the difference between right and wrong, memory and fact, and the strength of family bonds.
Typical of John Sayles films (or at least the one other one that I’ve seen, Sunshine State), there are multiple story lines, usually dealing with family, relationships, and the weight of the past as it affects the potential of the future. While Sam continues his investigation into what happened between his father and Charlie Wade, he reconnects with his old high school sweetheart, Pilar, played wonderfully by the magnificent Elizabeth Pena, works with the town’s mayor, and with the owner of a local bar that caters to African-Amercian clientele. Each of these characters’ stories weave elements of the past with present-day drama, and each holds a piece of the puzzle of the body in the desert.
In terms of tying in the themes of the inter-connectivity of the past and the present, John Sayles utilizes transitions that blend seamlessly into the present-day. Often times it seems as if Sam is part of the audience, watching each of these pieces fall into place, watching the story weave itself together as we go along. Aside from this small visual flair, the film rests mostly on the strength of its actors, and rest assured, its actors more than carry the load.
Through simple (NOTE: when I say simple, I don’t mean that it’s easy, only that it looks effortless when he does it) use of pauses, inflection, body-language, and facial expressions, Chris Cooper gives a fully realized performance as a man tired of living under his father’s thumb. McConaughey and Kristofferson embody memories, each filtered through the recollections of Sam, and the townsfolk, each is strong and absolute. Pilar is an emotionally, fully rounded woman who has deprived herself of happiness trying to do what’s right by her children and by her mother. Each character lives and breathes, and though they make believable choices, none of them are predictable or boring.
It is unfortunate that films like these aren’t being made as much as they were in the 90s. In the wrong hands they could be mundane and mediocre, but in the right hands, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, Steven Soderburgh, and John Sayles can make us love movies on a whole other level.
P.S. This is possibly the best acting that Matthew McConaughey has ever done.
P.P.S. If you’d like to learn more about the indie movement of the 90s I can’t recommend “Down and Dirty Pictures” by Peter Biskind highly enough.