John Sayles, whose resume also includes Passion Fish, Eight Men Out and The Return of the Secaucus Seven, sees his latest effort as the fulfillment of a long-nurtured ambition.
"In a way," Sayles said during a recent interview, "I think it was my misinformation about the place that started it all for me. The first time I traveled along the Texas-Mexican border, I had hitchhiked out there. And I expected, 'Okay, here's the border. North of it are the Anglos, and they speak English. And south of it are the Mexicans, and they speak Spanish.'
"But what I found instead was that people are speaking Spanish on both sides. It's like somebody had snuck out in the middle of the night and drew a line in between someone and his cousin, or someone and his brother, and said, 'Okay, you're one kind of person -- and they're the other.' "
Sayles allowed that impression to percolate for more than a decade before using it as a jumping-off point for a screenplay.
"The more I thought about it," Sayles said, "the more I thought, okay, it should be something about history, the burden of history. So I had the place, and a kind of theme, long before I had the story. It took me quite a while, because I thought, 'Well, I also want it to be personal. I don't want to just be historical about ethnic and social conflicts, stuff like that.'
"And then I came up with the idea, 'Well, what's something that drives us into the past? What's a way to investigate the past?' Well, an investigation. And since it's Texas, it must be a murder. They say that the three things you have to know how to say in Texas are, 'Well, there you go,' 'He needed killing' and 'There's family involved.' Often, those things come up in the same conversation. So I figured, 'Okay, a murder that took place in the past would bring you into one of these little border towns, and would take you across all of those racial and ethnic lines, in your discovery of who did what to who.' "
In Lone Star, Sayles has tried to reflect the shifting tides of Texas history -- and, by extension, the history of America as a whole -- in the personal histories of the three lawmen who figure prominently in his intricately designed plot. By coincidence, each of these characters is played by an actor with strong Texas ties. (Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey are Texas natives; Chris Cooper's parents were born in the state.) By design, each character represents "the mindset of a generation," Sayles says.
"The world-view coming from the Kris Kristofferson character is that of this kind of tough, hardscrabble Texan who is self-educated, if he's educated at all. He's one of those guys who was a foot soldier at the Alamo. That's who he's descended from. And as far as he's concerned, you gotta keep the greasers down. He's been eye-to-eye with them his whole life, and then finally somebody pinned a badge on him. And he's not going to let anybody forget that. He's got the upper hand in this struggle that's been going on for generations ... over who's going to own this land, and who's gonna run this border area.
"Whereas Matthew McConaughey's character, who comes a little later into this game, is much more of a live and let live, Lyndon Johnson kind of guy. He's still gonna run the show, but he's going to be a little condescending about it. And, you know, if you're a good fellow, he might build you a dam.
"And Chris Cooper's character, Sam Deeds, is kind of the Hamlet of the piece. He belongs to that generation of people who don't know whether they really want to be the cop of the world, or even the cop of Frontera, Texas. They're uneasy with power and responsibility because they feel that in the past, it's been abused so badly.
"Sam wants to see his father as the ultimate hypocrite and racist. And it's not true. It's more much complex than that ... I think the movement that Sam makes is from a kind of disgruntled adolescence into adulthood, where he's willing to say, 'Okay, the guy was complex. I'll give him that. He wasn't just the Hitler of the border.'
"Which is all part of growing up, of coming to terms with your personal history. That doesn't mean that you're going to become that person, or that you're always going to think that everything he did was good. But you're going to have some perspective on how the world works. You're going to understand the context in which he had to act. And also, you're going to realize, 'Okay, yeah, the guy had some good qualities, too.' "
-- Joe Leydon