Lone Star - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1996

Director: John Sayles

Production: Columbia Pictures; color, 35 mm, Panavision; running time: 135 minutes; length: 3781 meters. Filmed in Eagle Pass, Texas. Cost: $5 million.

Producer: R. Paul Miller, Maggie Renzi, John Sloss (executive), Jan Foster (associate); screenplay: John Sayles; cinematograper: Stuart Dryburgh; editor: John Sayles; music: Mason Daring; casting: Avy Kaufman; production design: Dan Bishop; art direction: J. Kyler Black; set decoration: Dianna Freas; costume design: Shay Cunliffe.

Cast: Stephen Mendillo ( Cliff ); Stephen J. Lang ( Mikey ); Chris Cooper ( Sam Deeds ); Elizabeth Peña ( Pilar Cruz ); Oni Faida Lampley ( Celie ); Eleese Lester ( Molly ); Joe Stevens ( Deputy Travis ); Gonzalo Castillo ( Amado ); Richard Coca ( Enrique ); Clifton James ( Mayor Hollis Pogue ); Tony Frank ( Fenton ); Miriam Colon ( Mercedes Cruz ); Kris Kristofferson ( Sheriff Charlie Wade ); Jeff Monahan ( Young Hollis ); Matthew McConaughey ( Buddy Deeds ); Frances McDormand ( Bunny ); and others.



Sayles, John, Men with Guns and Lone Star , New York, 1998.


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Sayles, John, and Tod Lippy, " Lone Star : Writing and Directing Lone Star ," in Scenario (Rockville), vol. 2, no. 2, Summer 1996.

Comer, Brooke, "Sayles Concocts Authentic Tex-Mex Murder Mystery," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 77, no. 6, June 1996.

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Alexander, Max, "Sayles-manship," in Variety (New York), vol. 363, no. 7, 17 June 1996.

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West, Dennis, and Joan M. West, "Borders and Boundaries: Lone Star ," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 3, December 1996.

Menard, Valerie, "Best and Worst of 1996," in Hispanic , vol. 9, no. 12, December 1996.

Philippon, A., "A Star is Dead," in Trafic (Paris), no. 21, Spring 1997.

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* * *

The final words of Lone Star are "Forget the Alamo." Along the Tex-Mex border—a region which, as local sheriff Sam Deeds remarks with laconic understatement, "has seen a good number of disagreements over the years"—the past weighs heavy, distorting relationships between individuals, generations, and whole communities. "All that stuff, that history—the hell with it, right?," says Sam's lover Pilar, aiming to break free from the trap of past guilts and enmities and start from scratch. According to John Sayles, the film is "about history and what we do with it. Do we use it to hit each other? Is it something that drags us down? . . . At what point do you say about your parents, 'That was them, this is me?"'

Even so, the phrase, "Forget the Alamo"—which Sayles at one point considered as a title for the film—shouldn't be taken too literally. Neither Pilar (a history teacher, after all) nor Sayles is suggesting anything so crude as simply junking the past, even if any of us could. Lone Star develops the theme that has underpinned all Sayles's work to date: the sense of character as a product of accumulated social and cultural influences, the way people are moulded by their backgrounds—but can surmount that conditioning if they try hard enough. "Blood only means what you let it," bar-owner Otis Payne tells his grandson, even while teaching him to be proud of his mixed Afro-Seminole ancestry. "Most people," says Cody, the redneck barman, "don't want their salt and sugar in the same jar," but under his morose gaze two army sergeants, one black and one white, are giving him the lie as they plan their life together.

With Lone Star Sayles returned to the broad-canvas, multiple-character mode of Matewan and City of Hope. In many ways the film forms a companion-piece to City of Hope —one northern and urban, the other southern and smalltown-rural, but both tracing lines of tension and interconnection between a wide spread of individuals, charting the social cross-currents and showing how these people impinge on each other, no matter how hard they try to keep themselves separate. Several characters in Lone Star strive to stay aloof: Mercedes Cruz, proud of her American citizenship, rejecting her own Hispanic background; Delmore Payne, Otis's estranged son, retreating into the rigid disciplines of army life; the Anglo parents at the school, resentful at finding themselves a minority in "their" community. Lone Star is a film about connections and also, as Sayles notes, "a film about borders" which, however artificial, must be acknowledged—but can still be crossed. In the final scene Sam and Pilar decide to cross one of the most fundamental borders of all, the incest taboo, since it matters less than their own happiness.

In its visual style, too, the film elides borders. Flashbacks are presented, not by cuts or dissolves, but by the camera simply panning left or right, up or down into a different time-zone that nonetheless occupies part of the same space. The past, Sayles implies, isn't another country; it's still here and people like Sam are living in it, carrying it with them. And as the flashbacks accumulate, the line between moral absolutes also starts to blur. At first the two former sheriffs, Charlie Wade and Sam's father Buddy, are seen as polar opposites: bad guy and good guy, "your ol' time bribe and bullets sheriff" versus the paragon of civic integrity. But as Sam, weary of living in his dead father's shadow, digs away around the feet of the idol to expose the clay, a less clear-cut, more human figure emerges: a man less bad than Sam wants him to be, but less perfect than the legend paints him. "It's not like there's a borderline between the good people and the bad people," Otis observes.

At times, the film's narrative density becomes excessive; Sayles (a fine novelist in his own right) seems to be aiming for a novel-like complexity, and several minor plot strands could be dropped without much damage. But Lone Star 's ambitions easily outweigh its defects; while breaking new ground in Sayles's ongoing exploration of the American myth, it retains his key qualities of intelligence, political acuteness, and narrative lucidity. An actors' director par excellence, he draws fine, naturalistic performances from his whole cast, besides giving Kris Kristofferson (as the corrupt, chuckling Charlie Wade) his first worthwhile role in years.

Sayles has always taken an inventive, oblique angle on genre, and in Lone Star he turns the conventions and vocabulary of the Western to his own ends. The central strand of a man gradually stripping the legend away from an admired father-figure carries echoes of Bertoluccils Spider's Stratagem (to say nothing of Citizen Kane ). But, although Sayles has often said he wants his films to make people think about their own lives, not about other films, Lone Star 's overall structure, and especially its final revelation, come so close to the crux of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that it can only be intentional. The whole film, in fact, could be read as a covert critique of the earlier movie: where John Ford saw the passing of the old gun-law West as a matter for nostalgia and regret, Sayles celebrates the growth in tolerance and civic order it represents. And it says a lot for Sayles's achievement that, even set against Ford's elegiac classic, Lone Star isn't in the least diminished by the comparison.

—Philip Kemp

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