Most everyone's running from something in Lone Star, John Sayles's sprawling epic of the border town of Frontera, Texas. And more often than not, they wind smack up against what they're trying to run from. Take Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), who only reluctantly returned to his hometown to serve as Sheriff of Rio County, primarily to get out of a bad marriage; he now finds himself surrounded by old-timers who constantly invoke the memory of his father, Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), who in their estimation fell just short of being God. They also imply quite frankly that the younger Deeds isn't cut from the same cloth. "Sheriff Deeds dead, honey," one elderly woman tells him. "You just Sheriff Junior."
When a skeleton turns up on the rifle range of a local Army base, it becomes even tougher for Sam to live down his father's ghost. Turns out that the bones belong to Buddy Deeds's predecessor, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a man as notorious for his evil corruption as Buddy was for his manly magnanimity. The town's 40-year-old legend has it that Buddy stood up to his boss and ran him out of town, though now it's looking as if he murdered Charley instead. Naturally, a lot of people aren't keen on Sam proving it so, including Buddy's former partner, who's now the mayor of Frontera.
But Sam's coming to terms with the past is only the main plot of a tale with even more characters than Sayles's 1991 epic, City of Hope. There's Colonel Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), who, like Sam, took up his assignment at the Army base only out of duty; he'd just as soon not live in the same town as his father, Otis (Ron Canada), the gregarious "Mayor of Darktown" whom he hasn't seen since he was 8 years old. Delmore's teenage son Chet, however, has different ideas, and shows up at Big O's, his grandfather's roadhouse, on the night a serviceman from the base gets shot. Meanwhile, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña) is a teacher facing controversy from the town's Anglo minority over her school's history curriculum, as well as a single mother dealing with her own rebellious teenage son, Jorge. Springing Jorge from jail one day, she runs into Sam, whom she dated in high school, but hasn't crossed paths with since. And Enrique, who works in the Mexican cafe owned by Pilar's well-to-do mother Mercedes, is making plans to bring his fiancée and several other compadres across the Rio Grande.
If this all sounds like a soap opera of substance, that's because it is: While City of Hope took on race, class, and corruption in contemporary urban America, Lone Star concerns itself with race, class, and the past in a volatile border town. So it's fitting that lines of demarcation are this film's dominant theme, with those between the U.S. and Mexico being only the most obvious metaphor. There are also the lines between past and present, between legend and fact, between Hispanics and Anglos and African-Americans; and, as roughly a dozen characters look to sort out interpersonal conflicts, between just plain people, no matter their stripe.
Yet the filmmaker makes a point of smearing such lines: "It's not like there's a borderline between the good people and the bad people. You're not on one side or the other," Otis tells his uptight son. Indeed, what's admirable about Sayles is that even as he embraces both ideas and ideals on a broad scale, he refuses to idealize--or romanticize, or give in to simplifications. While Lone Star has its moments of didacticism, Sayles is nowhere near as splashy or pompous as other Big Issue directors like Spike Lee or Oliver Stone. While they create entertainments that might also make you think, Sayles is one of few American directors who puts the thinking first, probably because he's written the scripts for all but two of his 10 films (as well as authoring three novels and a short story collection).
That's not to say that Lone Star is ponderously intellectual; once again this director of Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Brother From Another Planet, and Passion Fish confirms himself as a first-rate storyteller, one who relies on solid craft and plain, forceful narrative. The weight of history is constantly brought to bear in the film, as when the camera pulls away from Sam in the jail's reception area and reveals a photo gallery of all the previous sheriffs. A noteworthy technique is the film's seamless sliding from 1995 to the 1950s and back again. Risking and avoiding cheesiness, it works instead to show that history is ever-present--it's anything but a done deal.
Moreover, Sayles's characters are refreshingly naturalistic, an achievement helped by actors who don't overwhelm with their own star power. Notable here is Kristofferson as Charley Wade, a beady-eyed cretin too genuinely deadly to be a caricature. One is also left wishing for more of the electric presence of McConaughey as Buddy Deeds, a young gun who's simultaneously a little too small for his 10-gallon hat and too big for his britches--though understandably, his relative absence only makes his myth that much larger. One critic wrote that McConaughey, who's earned a buzz as the next quality Hollywood hunk, should have played Sam Deeds. It's a completely off-base idea: Cooper plays Sam as laconic and a little stodgy, just short of a lackluster loser, which is precisely the price of being the son of a local legend. He's keenly attuned to Sam's wry distaste at living down such a man. (Interestingly, both Cooper and McConaughey will appear in A Time to Kill later this summer, this time with the latter in the leading role.)
Lone Star's one-two punch of an ending (which is a bit slow in coming) arrives at a place that's just this side of optimistic. Its conclusions are that a mad dash from one's history is nothing more than willful ignorance; and that to liberate one's self from history is to dip down into it and confront it. And then there are the times when, once the past has been stared down, leaving well enough alone is the best next thing to do.