Filmmaker John Sayles came out of the same film-student revolution as George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorcese. In fact, like the latter two gentlemen, Sayles got his start as a screenwriter and script doctor for Drive-In Movie king Roger Corman, writing the scripts for genre fare like Battle Beyond the Stars and Alligator. Using his income from these endeavors, Sayles wrote, produced and directed his first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), which was embraced by critics and seemed to usher in a new wave of small “quiet” independent films. Where many others were storming theaters with their Star Wars and Jaws blockbusters, Sayles opted to tell smaller, more intimate stories.
Considered to be one of his more commercial and accessible films (after, perhaps, 1988’s baseball drama, Eight Men Out), Sayles completed Lone Star for release in 1996. A mix of genres, Lone Star is ostensibly a murder mystery set in modern day Texas. Out in the desert, just beyond a military base in the midst of being decommissioned, a skeleton is unearthed. Beside it, caked with dirt and age, a sheriff’s badge. It doesn’t take too long to ascertain that the body belonged to “Big Charlie” Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a tough and altogether corrupt lawman who held the small border town in his iron fist during his time as sheriff, but who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, along with $10,000 of extortion money. Unfortunately for current Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), all evidence of Wade’s murder points to Sam’s own father, local hero Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), Wade’s successor.
Among the townsfolk, the late Buddy Deeds is held in the highest esteem, almost deified by all, including his former deputy, now Mayor, Hollis Pogue. In fact, there is a dedication ceremony underway to name the new courthouse after Buddy. Due to his own strained relationship with Buddy, Sam is almost eager to pin the crime on his father, if only to knock him down from the pedestal the town has placed him on. Much of their familial tension centered around teenage Sam’s relationship with his girlfriend, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), and Buddy’s near-violent insistence that they stay away from each other. Now adults, Sam and Pilar hope to rekindle their childhood romance, but are still haunted by Buddy’s disapproval. The town, too, still suffers from past hurts from segregation between whites, African Americans, and Mexicans, both legal and those frequently caught crossing the border into Texas. Before too long, it’ll become clear that Big Charlie Wade wasn’t the only thing buried out there in the desert, and maybe the truth isn’t the best alternative to what has worked so well for the town.
A financial and critical success when released, Lone Star was lauded primarily for its performances—Cooper, Peña, Kristofferson and Ron Canada (as bar-owner Otis Payne) all cited for their duties—but it was a young McConaughey who was singled out for the highest praise. Still a month away from his breakthrough hit in the John Grisham adaptation of A Time to Kill. In flashbacks, McConaughey’s Buddy Deeds is a commanding authority, a far cry from his spacy character “Wooderson” in Dazed and Confused for which he was best-known at the time. His scenes with Kristofferson particularly hold attention as violence always seems imminent.
There’s a Pittsburgh connection to Lone Star as well. Young Hollis, in flashbacks, is played by local actor/writer/director Jeff Monahan, (whose other credits include Two Evil Eyes, George A. Romero’s Bruiser, George A. Romero presents Deadtime Stories, Richard Linklatter’s Last Flag Flying (also starring Steve Carrell and Bryan Cranston), and our film, Razor Days). Monahan as Young Hollis provides the film a small but crucial role in tying the two eras together.
While it is hard indeed to go wrong with a Sayles film—also recommended are his powerful Matewan and the almost whimsical Brother From Another Planet—Lone Star grabs the audience’s attention from the get-go, but allows the various stories to unfurl at their own pace, all the while asking questions that veer into the uncomfortable, from attitudes regarding race and immigration, and especially the conundrum regarding local heroes, and if their legacies can be tarnished, should they be?
Fortunately for us all, Lone Star is readily available on DVD and through Netflix.