Early in John Sayles' Lone Star, there is a heated discussion about textbooks that, quite obviously, is really about something else.
The scene is a parent-teacher meeting in the border town of Frontera, Texas. The Hispanic parents are determined to push their demands for a revisionist approach to teaching Texas history. The Anglos are equally determined to maintain the status quo, to teach what has always been taught about the establishment of the Lone Star state. One particularly outspoken Anglo is quick to dismiss the bitter complaints of a Hispanic activist: "Hey, we stole it fair and square, buddy! Winners get to write the history!"
Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), a thirtysomething widowed schoolteacher at the center of the conflict, does her best to maintain some degree of civility amid the angry exchanges. But even as the tempers flare all around her, she remains distracted by thoughts about her own personal history.
She can't help thinking about her mother, Mercedes (Miriam Colon), a Mexican-born restaurant owner who has single-mindedly Americanized herself during her many years in Frontera. ("In English!" Mercedes tells a kitchen worker who makes the mistake of speaking in his mother tongue. "This is the United States! We speak English!") And when she isn't thinking about her mother, Pilar is thinking about Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), the Anglo sheriff of Frontera. More than two decades ago, they were high school sweethearts. But her mother disapproved of their relationship. And Sam's father took drastic steps to end the romance.
The past is never very far away from anyone in Lone Star, a richly textured and deeply involving drama about the weight of history and the subjectivity of memory. More important, the film also is about breaking free of the past -- distant and recent, personal and communal -- a rebellion expressed with no little irony when a character announces: "Everything that went before, all that stuff, all that history -- the hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo."
Specifically, Lone Star is a story about several interconnected lives in a Texas town where the sins of fathers continue to haunt their sons, and no one can escape the past without a determined struggle. Bountifully rich in incident and characterization, the film recalls the vast canvas of Sayles' City of Hope, a 1991 blue-collar epic about contemporary urban life. But Lone Star is more intimate, more tightly focused, more emotionally compelling. It may well be Sayles' masterwork. It definitely is the first film of 1996 with a legitimate claim to greatness. During a summer movie season when so much emphasis has been placed on dazzling pyrotechnics and computer-generated magic, Sayles is audacious enough to remind us that the most special effect we can find at the movies is, as always, an intelligent and engrossing story about full-bodied, three-dimensional human beings.
As he has so many times before, Sayles takes great pains in Lone Star to present an all-inclusive overview of the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in his dramatic landscape. (The film, incidentally, was shot on location in and around Eagle Pass.) Even relatively minor subplots about interracial romances and political maneuverings ring true with precise and persuasive detail. Lone Star may well be the first mainstream American movie to acknowledge that middle-class Hispanics have become a formidable political force in Texas, much to the discomfort of some tradition-bound Anglos. When someone tells Sam Deeds that he may be "the last white sheriff" of Frontera, he merely nods in noncommittal agreement. For him, the diminishment of the Anglo minority's control is neither tragic nor distressing. It simply is an inevitability.
As it turns out, Sam was encouraged to run for sheriff in the first place primarily because the Anglo minority figured he was their last best hope to remain in power. Here, too, the past figures prominently in everyone's considerations: Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), Sam's late father, was the local sheriff for 15 years, and he continues to be revered by most of the townspeople as a legend. (When Sam introduces himself as "Sheriff Deeds" to a longtime Frontera resident, the elderly woman corrects him: "Sheriff Deeds dead, honey. You just Sheriff Junior.") Not surprisingly, Sam remembers the elder Deeds as a far less admirable figure.
The locals still swap stories about the fateful night 40 years ago when Buddy ran his corrupt predecessor, Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), out of town. No one has seen or heard of Wade since his hasty departure. But everyone remembers him as a racist, murderous despot. Buddy Deeds may have been only slightly less corrupt, but he was a great deal more evenhanded -- and far less vicious -- about exerting his control over Frontera.
When skeletal remains are uncovered at the long abandoned Army firing range near town, Sam investigates. And when he finds a rusty sheriff's badge near the bones, he begins to suspect that there's more to his father's legend than anyone in town has ever suspected.
Sure enough, the remains are identified as those of Charlie Wade. Sam figures his father is the most likely suspect in the newly discovered murder, so he questions Buddy's friends and associates. Mayor Pogue (Clifton James), Buddy's former deputy, urges Sam to let sleeping dogs lie. But Sam won't be dissuaded, even if his investigation threatens to sully the memory of the town's most cherished hero. "I understand why you might want to believe he couldn't do it," Sam tells the mayor. "I can understand why you might want to think he could," the mayor responds.
As dramatic counterpoint to Sam's investigation, Sayles unfolds a subplot involving another minority in Frontera: African-Americans. Colonel Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), the new commander of the nearby Fort McKenzie, is a spit-and-polish career soldier who takes pride in never allowing his race to be either an issue or an excuse. His latest assignment is a mixed blessing. For one thing, he has been given command of a base scheduled to shut down within two years. For another thing, returning to Frontera means Payne must confront his long estranged father, Otis (Ron Canada), a roguish tavern owner who's known unofficially as "the mayor of Darktown."
Otis walked out on his wife and son years ago. Payne has neither forgiven nor forgotten. Indeed, now the colonel is erring on the side of overcompensation by being a highly attentive and demanding father for his own son, Chet (Eddie Robinson).
Payne refuses to let himself be limited or defined by his past. He is fond -- perhaps a little too fond -- of telling Chet: "You have to start from scratch and pull yourself up from there." But Chet is too curious about his roots to heed his father's warning to avoid Otis. For his part, Otis takes inordinate pride in charting the various branches of his family tree, and has turned part of his bar into a kind of living museum. But when Sam drops by to see Otis, he's more interested in a different type of history. He doesn't care about the exhibit out back. Rather, he wants to know what happened in the bar 40 years ago, the night when Buddy and Charlie Wade had a final, fateful confrontation.
Sayles skillfully intertwines all of these relationships and revelations in a complex but lucid murder mystery. The secret behind Charlie Wade's violent demise is dramatically sound and genuinely surprising. Even more interesting, however, is the chain of family ties, secret passions, ethnic conflicts and ruthless ambitions that unites the characters. The payoff to the drama is a revelation that, while somewhat contrived, triggers a final scene that is mildly shocking -- and richly satisfying.
In several other scenes, Sayles gracefully glides his camera from a flashback to a contemporary scene, allowing past and present to exist simultaneously in the same tracking shot. In lesser hands, this storytelling device could have come off distracting at best, affected at worst. Sayles, however, makes it uncommonly eloquent in its emotional expressiveness. People may try to run away from yesterday, but they never get very far. For good or ill, history has lessons to teach and demands to make. Each individual must decide for himself how to respond -- and what to reject.
Sayles has assembled an excellent ensemble cast for Lone Star, and Chris Cooper (the star of Sayles' Matewan) is first among equals. As Sam, Cooper subtly conveys the quiet desperation of a man who knows he has made a mess of his life so far, but suspects he lacks the moral courage to improve things much. For a long time, it's clear that, on some level, Sam actually hopes his father was a murderer. Not surprisingly, the more he digs into his father's past, the more he learns about himself.
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Elizabeth Pena, a fine actress who rarely gets the roles she deserves, reveals a quiet strength and a sad-eyed sensuality in her multifaceted role as wife, mother and lover. She and Cooper bring out the best in each other as Pilar and Sam take their first, wary steps toward rekindling their passion.
Morton brings an unexpected touch of compassion to his stern military man, while Canada and James give vibrant performances as characters who would prefer not to shine light on their own dark secrets. As Wade, Kristofferson makes the most of his relatively few scenes, so that his malignant presence hovers over the action even when he's nowhere to be seen. And Frances McDormand, fresh from her triumph in Fargo, is both comic and tragic in her one-scene role as Sam's ex-wife, Bunny, a jittery manic-depressive who devotes most of her energy, and all of her attention, to Texas football. Maybe other folks obsessed about the O.J. Simpson trial. Not Bunny. After all, she tells Sam, "It's not like it was Don Meredith or something."
Directed by John Sayles. With Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Joe Morton and Elizabeth Pena.