Texas, 1996. Two middle-aged Army sergeants are walking in the desert. While one is enjoying himself by identifying various cacti, the other is prospecting for bullets - the area they are walking in is a former rifle range.
Suddenly Sergeant Mikey, the prospector armed with a metal detector, calls out to his companion. He comes running and they both stand over a human skull, partially uncovered in the Texas earth.
It took me years to realise that Lone Star, the 1996 film by director John Sayles, is actually a western. I suppose I had become so cynical of westerns that I failed to appreciate the more subtle elements of the genre. While I certainly appreciated films like Unforgiven and even the socialist flop Heaven's Gate, I was never able to appreciate anything at or below the level of The Wild Bunch. So while I could certainly appreciate people like John Ford, I could never really handle John Wayne or like characters.
Lone Star is different. While it fits into the sub-genre of "contemporary westerns", it is sufficiently different from the stereotypical western that it can easily appeal to anyone who appreciates a good film. In other words, it is "a western for the rest of us".
The film centres around the work of Rio County sherriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) as he seeks to solve the mystery of the body found by the prospectors. Sam is the son of Buddy Deeds, the former Rio County sherriff and the most beloved historical figure in the town of Frontera. Naturally Sam constantly lives in his deceased father's shadow, and even makes a short speech (see image above) at a ceremony to dedicate the new "Buddy Deeds Courthouse" in Frontera. Despite the respect his father engenders in the townsfolk, his memories of his father are quite bitter, and some in the town believe that Sam just can't cut it in comparison - being "all hat and no cattle".
But while Sam is trying to solve the mystery of the dead body, he also manages to restart his friendship with Pilar Cruz (played by Elizabeth Peña, the voice of "Mirage" in The Incredibles) the girl he fell in love with when he was 15 . Now in their late 30s, they talk again for the first time in over 20 years. Sam's bitter memories of his father stem from the almost violent opposition his father had to his relationship with Pilar when he was a teenager - something Pilar's mother, Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon, below), now a powerful local businesswoman in Frontera, also imposed on her daughter.
We find out that Pilar's mother eventually sent her to an all-girl's Catholic high school in order to keep Pilar permanently away from Sam. Both went their separate ways. Sam married and went to live in San Antonio, while Pilar married, had two children and became a teacher.
When the film begins, Sam has gotten divorced and has been elected the Sherriff of Rio County, thus coming back to the town his father worked in. Pilar's husband, Nando, has recently died, leaving her as a widowed mother of two teenagers and working as a history teacher in the local high school. They come into contact when Pilar's son, Amado, is arrested for fitting a stolen CD player in a friend's car.
Naturally Sam and Pilar's friendship "deepens" as the film progresses, but then again, so does the mystery surrounding the dead body discovered by the two prospectors.
As part of the investigative process, Sam interviews people who were in Frontera at the time his father, Buddy (below, played by Matthew McConaughey), was still a deputy. Sam listens to these stories, which are portrayed in the film as flashbacks to 1957.
In those years, the Sherriff of Rio County was the vicious and corrupt Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson, below). Wade was as corrupt as a person could get, making sure that he profited from every illegal activity in the county, nor matter how large or small. While he had clout with the Whites, his main targets were the Black and Hispanic communities. Since the fictional Rio County is on the border with Mexico (the Rio Grande runs between the county and Mexico), the county is also often the starting point for illegal immigrants ("wetbacks") to enter the United States. Wade makes sure he also profits from this illegal trafficking.
It's obvious, however, that Charlie Wade is hated by everyone. As the film progresses, we learn fairly early on that, one day, Wade disappears and is never seen again. In his place, a young Buddy Deeds is enthusiastically elected Sherriff.
One of the central characters is the current mayor, Hollis Pogue (Clifton James, below). Pogue is a salty old fella who is obviously well-liked by the populance but also has learned a great deal of political savvy over the years. Now, as he approaches retirement (an election is to be held the next year), he prefers fishing and dining with old friends.
Pogue has been in Rio county for decades. In fact, when Charlie Wade was Sherriff, young Hollis Pogue (Jeff Monahan, below) was one of his two deputies - the other being Buddy Deeds. Hollis continued on his job as deputy under Deeds before involving himself in the county's politics, where he is eventually elected mayor.
Another person of interest is Otis Payne (Ron Canada, below, right), or "Big O" as he is called. Otis runs "Big O's", a bar and restaurant that serves the black community in Rio County. 9 out of every 10 people in the County are Hispanic, and whites outnumber blacks, making his community small. Because of his influence, Otis is known as "the mayor of Darktown", with his bar and the Holiness church being the only places in the county that blacks can come together.
And, of course, young Otis Payne (Gabriel Casseus) was also around at the time when Charlie Wade disappeared, working in the same bar. As the picture below shows, he also had a run-in with Charlie Wade and was nearly killed by him. In the years after Wade's disappearance, he eventually took over the bar and worked closely with Buddy Deeds to ensure that the county's black community came out to vote for him as sherriff every few years.
As you can see from the images, the film interweaves between 1957 and 1996, with the events of the past being important in solving the crime that the prospectors of the present have discovered. At one point the film also goes back to the early 1970s, showing images of a young Sam Deeds (Tay Strathairn, below) and a young Pilar beginning their teenage love, and also suffering at the hands of their respective parents.
Perhaps the most accurate summary of the film's theme would be "What happens when you dig up the past?". Although there is much value in digging up what was buried in order to bring the truth out, oftentimes the truth is something you may not wish to hear. This theme is present in a number of the film's backstories, such as Private Johnson from the local military base (Chandra Wilson, below) having to confront her gang-related background as a teenager while trying to forge a career in the Army in the present - a background that results in another soldier being seriously wounded while off duty at "Big O's".
Of course, by investigating the body (which had been buried since the late 1950s), Sam is investigating the past and, as a result, the actions of his own dead father in the disappearance of Charlie Wade. During the investigation he is clearly warned off by Hollis Pogue, as well as an Indian by the name of Wesley Birdsong (Gordon Tootoosis, below), who tells him the story of a rattlesnake he discovered while investigating an old box - the idea being that opening the box (the past) can be dangerous and unexpected.
The film is notable for the backstories that are present in it. None of the backstories have anything to do with the mystery of solving the body, but serve solely to reinforce the theme of digging up the past. At the very beginning of the film we meet Pilar for the first time in a heated discussion with a group of White and Hispanic parents at her school who are arguing over the history curriculum. The white parents are upset that Pilar and other teachers are teaching about the struggle of Hispanics during 19th century Texas as they battle against racism and white supremacy, while the Hispanic parents are upset with a "White bread" view of history being promulgated which show the Mexicans as the "bad guys".
But perhaps the most enjoyable backstory is that of the arrival of Colonel Delmore Payne (Joe Morton, below) as the commanding officer of Fort Mackenzie, Rio County's military barracks.
Fort Mackenzie is also the place where Private Johnson serves, as well as Sergeants Mikey and Cliff, the two prospectors who discover the dead body. Fort Mackenzie used to, at one time, train infantry for the US Army but stopped doing this in the early 1950s. An old rifle range where recruits were trained remained unused for many decades, and served as the place where Mikey and Cliff hunted for old bullets and shells (which Mikey, played by Stephen J. Lang, turns into sculptures, below).
It was while prospecting in the rifle range that Mikey and Cliff stumble upon the remains that Sam Deeds spends the movie investigating.
But back to Colonel Payne.
Colonel Delmore Payne is the son of "Big O" Otis Payne, but hasn't seen nor spoken to his father since he was 8 years old. Now married and in his 40s, Colonel Delmore Payne has accepted an offer to run Fort Mackenzie despite the fact that it would mean being close to his estranged father. However, an incident involving some of his troops at Big O's forces him to visit the establishment and to confront his father for the first time in decades (below).
Needless to say there is a lot of bitterness that he feels towards Otis, which not only comes out in the way he treats him, but also the way he treats his own son, Chet (Eddie Robinson, below, and also above in the picture of Otis). Chet is averaging a B+ in school (Pilar is his history teacher) but that is not enough to get into West Point, which is where his Father, Colonel Payne, wants him to go. In many ways, Colonel Delmore Payne runs his own family like the military, and it is assumed that he has complete control over his son's future, despite what Chet may wish for. Chet admits to his grandfather, Otis, that his father always said "from the moment you're born, you have to lift yourself up on your own two feet - no breaks". Otis replies that Delmore is living proof of that.
Yet despite the fact that Colonel Delmore Payne is hard enough to "crack nuts with his buttocks" (as Sergeant Mikey states), we do sympathise with his plight of being brought up without a father. Despite his hardness, we do see Delmore struggling to come to terms with the fact that his estranged father is close by. This, in turn, forces him to "dig up" his own past.
I obviously won't give away the ending of this backstory to you, but you need to remember that before he became a Colonel, Delmore Payne was a Major... ie "Major Pain". I think this is a veiled joke on behalf of the director which also gives us a glimpse of what Delmore can now become. Before, Delmore was a "Major Pain", but, since becoming Colonel and returning to Rio county, he is a "Major Pain" no more.
As I have stated, the backstory involving Colonel Payne and his relationship with Otis has absolutely nothing to do with Sam's quest to fully investigate the dead body in the rifle range. In fact, this particular backstory is a complete story in itself, as though the director has created two separate and (relatively) unrelated stories for the one film. Fortunately, the major story (Sam's investigation) co-exists quite happily with the minor story (Colonel Payne's relationship with his father), and both are connected with the main theme of digging up the past.
The film ends with Pilar and Sam sitting on the bonnet of his car (below) in a disused drive-in that the two had once visited when they were teenagers. The scene is picturesque and quite romantic. But...
...it is during this scene that a twist ending occurs. One final piece of "the puzzle" is revealed that confounds the viewer yet, when all the puzzle pieces are examined, is actually quite fitting. The twist helps explain to the viewer the actions and reactions of many characters during the story. The twist is not, however, somehow non-naturalistic or supernatural in nature, but has resulted from digging up the past. In retrospect, the warnings that Sam had received about digging up the past were quite justified.
But I will say this, just in case some of you have watched Star Wars too much: Sam is not Charlie Wade's son!
Overall the film is brilliant. It is slow at times and the complexity of the back stories (many of whom I have not discussed in this review) can often confuse the viewer into wondering how they fit into the plot. If you view it, realising that the backstories are unrelated, then the film becomes simpler to understand and more enjoyable. I cannot image Chris Cooper in any other role - his Sam Deeds is everything the stereotypical southern sherriff is not, introspective, sensitive, calm and quietly driven. Even his southern "twang" is personable. Elizabeth Pena is similarly believable as a widowed hispanic history teacher who is simultaneously unsettled by and attracted to, her first love. Kris Kristofferson is not my favourite actor, but his performance as the ugly and vicious Charlie Wade is probably the best role of his career. Matthew McConaughey as the legendary Buddy Deeds appears only briefly, but has enough drive and bravery to make his role special too. Then there's the actors from the various backstories, all of whom take their roles seriously and flesh out great characters from a plot-driven story.
More Pictures of Lone Star can be found here.
© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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