Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)

A spraawwwllliinngg tale centered around a Texas sheriff’s investigating the apparent murder of a wicked predecessor forty years before, and an examination of pretty much everyone directly and indirectly affected by it, both in the past and in the present.  Too sprawling at times?  Yeah, I guess it gets muddled in subplot after subplot, some of which it’s tough to find a connection between even after the credits roll.  But really, it’s only tough to follow in the beginning – you’ll get used to it once you get to know the many, many characters and their stories, most of which feel pretty genuine, like they really have been living amongst each other in that small town for years before we meet them (except for Frances McDormand in an inexplicably quirky and over the top, one-scene performance that seems like it’s from another film entirely.  Clearly that other performance of hers in 1996 outdid this one by miles 😉 ).  The investigation is the lynchpin around which the rest of the plot revolves, but clearly the theme’s supposed to be the complicated race relations in a place like this small Texas town, particularly between the whites, blacks, and latinos.  Sometimes Sayles emphasizes that too much and “Lone Star” turns into too much of a lecture on race, as everyone stops to discuss what should be taught in a history class, or the history of intermarrying blacks and Native Americans, etc. (a subplot involving a bar fight between soldiers and the implications of that at the nearby Army base felt utterly superfluous other than to further emphasize the difficulties that minorities must deal with), but overall it just added flavor to an already-dynamic time in place, and something to stew over once the mystery is solved (a mystery that takes a page from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s” book that the legend is often more important than the fact).  Sayles’s screenplay impressively weaves past and present pretty effortlessly, the flashbacks dominated by the presence Kris Kristofferson, sadistic and pure evil as the sheriff who goes missing and who made many enemies .  The seamless, uncut transitions between present and flashback, mostly done thanks to no more than a camera pan, are a little gimmicky and Boondock Saints-ish, but still, the flashbacks start to answer our questions as the story and mystery progresses, yet and the same time only begin to reveal how past influences present, and how little has changed when it comes to the complicated issue of race.  I was more interested in the individual relationships themselves than some overarching theme about how those relationships are a metaphor for race relations and all that – in particular, the rekindling of a romance between Chris Cooper’s sheriff investigating the decades-old mystery and Elizabeth Peña as the woman he loved, but was forbidden to love, when they were teenagers.  They’re the two most ‘real’ characters in the film, from their awkward but truly affectionate by jukebox in her mother’s restaurant  re-courtship to Cooper’s Sheriff Deeds’s quiet persistence in investigating an ice-cold case, tracking down financial records and questioning a series of shady characters forty years after the fact – a film noir in the bright sunshine of Texas.  This was quite a fun little rubik’s cube of a sprawling mystery, and a tapestry of interconnected people and events, all of which, following some MASSIVE build-up and development of character after character, makes cruelly underwhelming sense by the end, and it shouldn’t be any other way.


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