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Lone Star

Lone Star

By Kyle Barrett • September 7th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: June 21st, 1996
Running time: 135 minutes

Writer and director: John Sayles

Cast: Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Peña, Joe Morton, Ron Canada, Clifton James

Lone Star

John Sayles has established himself as one of the true independent filmmakers working in the US today. After making a living as a screenwriter for B-movies such as Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), he used what money he managed to scrape together to make his low-budget debut The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), a comedy-drama focusing on the reunion of protestors and how their lives have changed. Sayles used whatever resources were available to him and he took on other duties, editing and occasional actor, to help keep costs down. After a few more low-budget efforts, including The Brother from Another Planet (1984) which gained him somewhat of a cult following, Sayles began to grow as a filmmaker and gain bigger budgets.

His seminal historical epic Matewan (1987) displayed his talent at both dialogue and direction, keeping it simple and straightforward. Always a favourite of critics, Sayles’ work were never box-office smashes but those who managed to see his films were taken to an unseen part of America. His protagonists are always asking questions and willing to fight in what they believe in. Regular collaborators Chris Cooper and David Strathairn play complex heroes who wish to change the establishment. In some ways he creates classic heroes yet he brings out a complexity through his use of actors and setting. He would reach his peak with Lone Star , a tale of mystery and family and the secrets that were best left unknown.

Lone Star was the first film of Sayles I’d seen. I was drawn in almost immediately. The mystery is set up in the first scene where two army officers discover a skeleton on an old firing range. Sam Deeds (Cooper), the sheriff, arrives and begins to investigate. As Deeds starts his investigation, he flows through the Texas border town in Rio County as many stories begin to unfold. When he meets former deputy and now the town’s mayor, Hollis (Clifton James), he uncovers the of brutal, corrupt sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who had a run-in with Sam’s father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey) who’s become a legend of the town for his good-natured sense of justice.

Lone Star

While the racist Wade shook down the minorities of the town, African-Americans, Mexicans and whomever he deemed unworthy, Buddy was keen to drive him out of town. The skeleton ends up being Wade’s and Sam suspects his father killed him. Though the mystery is surrounding the town, Sayles explores other character’s that have stories to tell. Army Colonel, Del (Joe Morton), resents being brought back to his hometown after his father, Otis (Ron Canada), left his mother for another woman. Now estranged, Del is trying hard not to rekindle with his father which puts a strain on his relationship with his son Chet (Eddie Robinson) who’s taken an interest in getting to know his grandfather.

School teacher and former high school girlfriend of Sam, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) clashes with her mother Mercedes (Miriam Colon) who’s ashamed of her heritage. As Sam tries to find out the past, it brings him closer to Pilar. In the end, it doesn’t matter who killed Wade, we’re so invested in the town and the characters.

Sayles employs a simple yet elegant style to his direction. To show the shift into flashbacks, he slowly pans the camera away, and without cutting, we’re back in the past. He rarely uses close-ups and it’s mainly filled with wide and mid-shots. Sayles wants the space and the openness of the town to surround his characters and constantly has emblems of the town in the background. Lone StarDuring a scene in the police station where Sam first sees Pilar in quite some time, he’s framed so that the pictures of the former sheriffs are gazing at, and haunting, him. Sam is resentful toward Buddy because he kept Pilar away from him. Fed up with the legend of Buddy, trying to find some dirt on him to show the town he wasn’t the angel they thought him to be would bring about some kind of closure for his resentment. Sayles doesn’t push Cooper to play Sam as an angry man, just a frustrated individual who’s constantly being compared to the good ‘deeds’ his father did for the town and the community.

There’s not one flawed performance in the entire film. Over the years, Sayles has attracted big name stars to act in his films in small roles for little money. McConaughey, who was becoming a star at the time, perfectly projects the good-natured Buddy and is now finally matching this level of underplaying and subtly in his latest work. Kristofferson plays Wade as a slimy dog whose smile can be deadlier than a bullet. He immerses himself in the role of the bad cowboy and, though he has limited screen time, he makes it count and brings about unease whenever he appears.

Cooper, always reliable and underappreciated, plays down Sam much in the same way as McConaughey underplays Buddy. He has a sad face and uses it to his advantage, he plays Sam Lone Staras a simple man, the person we can all identify with. He wants to do what’s right, as long as it helps the town. It’s one of Cooper’s best roles and he is one of the best actors going. Peña gives a lot to a role that could have been overplayed and melodramatic. She has chemistry with Cooper and you want them to get together. Canada, another great character actor, is given more to do than usual and he plays Otis as a man who has seen and been through a lot. He shines with his scenes with Morton as they say very little but suggest a lot more in their minimal dialogue.

James, who’s normally brought in to offer some comic relief, is given the more complex role of Hollis who witnesses Wade’s crimes. In James’ face we see a man who’s seen some terrible things and was too weak to do anything about it. Frances McDormand has a terrific cameo as Sam’s former wife Bunny who is obsessed with football. It goes without saying that McDormand brings a welcoming presence to the already stellar cast.

Lone Star is a novel written for the screen. The various sub-plots and sub-sub-plots demand the viewer’s attention, yet we’re never bored. At over two hours, many other films would drag but the time flies in as Sayles has written some great, complex characters that you want to hang around with. From superb direction and writing, to some solid performances, it stands as an example of exceptional filmmaking from one of America’s true artists.

Lone Star

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.

He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.

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