Lone Star (1996): John Sayles Most Popular Movie

The idea for Lone Star, John Sayles’ most popular effort to date, goes back to his childhood, when he was watching Davy Crockett and The Alamo on TV.

“Lone Star” is not based on a factual story, but, similarly to Sayles’ earlier “City of Hope,” Sayles holds he could find documentation in old newspapers for each incident depicted in the film.

At its core, Lone Star explores the long standing strain between the Mexican and American communities in South Texas: “Texas has always belonged to Mexican-Americans, but only in the last ten to fifteen years have they started to get the jobs that run the place. The Daughters of the Confederacy, who were white, and the Daughters of the Alamo, who were Latino, are still fighting for their version of history.” For Sayles, the racial antagonism serves “a good metaphor for America.”

Set in the small town of Frontera, Lone Star follows the expedition of a reluctant sheriff to resolve a mystery of the past. It begins with a skeleton discovered among cactuses and a rookie sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), trying to figure out whether his father was a murderer. The root of evil points to Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who was run out of town and killed by Sam’s father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey).

Lone Star is a movie haunted by a sense of America as a violent country, where uprootedness and lack of collective memory are common problems. Frontera flows in blood–there’s no release, no relief from the past: The memory of dead Sheriff Buddy Deeds, a mythic figure, wields more power than the living ones.

Sayles turns a criminal investigation into a multi-layered epic about intergenerational wars. The white, black and Mexican characters are mixed up in each other’s lives. In most Sayles movies, it’s fathers and sons, but here, it’s also mothers and daughters; grandfathers, sons and grandchildren. School teacher Pilar (Elizabeth Pena) is alienated from her mother, and Delmore (Joe Morton), a black Army colonel is in conflict with both his son and his father.

Characters that seem at first unrelated are ultimately brought closer until they are all held in a tight net. Impressive as the film’s scope is, it still suffers from a diagrammatic construction: Everything is explicit, including the use of recognizable heroes and villains. Frontera’s racial history is not only dramatized, it’s also discussed by parents at home and lectured about in schools.

Visually, the flashbacks are presented inventively. In one case, the camera studies Sam’s face on the bank of a river, pans away to the water, then returns to find that Sam’s place has been replaced by his teenage self. For dramatic punctuation, Sayles uses Charles Wade’s trigger: Whenever the action flags and the pace drags, the sound of the gun pushes the yarn along.

Recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece The Last Picture Show, The Lone Star movie bears similar visual and thematic motifs: a decrepit small town, dusty streets, ruined drive-in. And like the 1971 film, the town is beset by bigotry and unresolved mystery: In Last Picture Show, the secretive love was between Sam the Lion and Lois (played by Ben Johnson and Ellen Burstyn); here, it’s between Buddy Deeds and a school teacher.