Lone Star
directed by John Sayles
(Castle Rock, 1996)

Sheriff Sam Deeds is a man with a tough job in the tough Texas outback.

His job is complicated by a murder investigation, which is further complicated by the fact that the victim was the sheriff who disappeared 40 years earlier, which is complicated by the fact that Sam's late father, Deputy Buddy Deeds, was involved, which is complicated by the fact that Sam and his father didn't get along, which is complicated by the fact that Buddy is a legend in Rio County.

All of which is complicated by the fact that all of this is taking place in the middle of a three-sided cultural range war among the town's Anglos, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Now you'd think with all these complications that Lone Star would quickly collapse under its own weight. But it soars. It soars because it's Sayles' -- John Sayles' that is.

From 1980's Return of the Secaucus Seven to 1994's The Secret of Roan Inish, Sayles -- who often writes, edits and/or acts in the films he directs -- is famous for making films which are about something. This "something" -- it's hard to say just what it is -- lifts Lone Star above the standard detective film, just as the detective-film format makes Lone Star more interesting than most message films.

Sayles is aided in this effort by two things: 1) An interesting assortment of characters -- Sam, who's as much Hamlet as he is lawman; Pilar, his high school flame, who now leads one-third of the range war; Hollis, the former deputy and current mayor, who wishes Rio County had as much future as it does past; Otis Payne, owner of the town's only black night club and a principal in the sheriff's disappearance; Charlie Wade, the murder victim and self-appointed focal point of Rio County's corruption; and Charlie Deeds, who became a legend by toppling Wade and establishing a kinder, gentler system of graft; And, 2) Low-key performances by an excellent cast -- Chris Cooper as Sam, Elizabeth Pena as Pilar, Clifton James as Hollis, Ron Canada as Otis and Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey as Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds, both of whom appear in frequent, near-hallucinogenic flashbacks.

Cooper is especially good as he pokes around -- there are no third-degrees here -- turning up fact after fact that Rio County's citizens would rather not have uncovered on his way to solving a murder Rio County would rather leave unsolved.

Sam is no Columbo, but he doesn't have to be. Rio County provides the color and Sayles provides the brush strokes. It's only up to Sam to put the pieces together. And he does, in his own time, in his own way.

Lone Star can be a challenging film to watch. Not all the loose ends get tied up, and it's often at odds with itself over the nature of justice. But the music is great, the characters unpredictable and the action intriguing if not rapid-fire.

Sayles gave his movie a lone star. I'd give it at least five.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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