John Sayles has a talent for telling stories about how the political affects the personal. As a writer director he has a reputation for engaging with socio-political subjects and inflecting them through slightly disjointed genre conventions. He never seems preachy, his political intent is serious, but humanistic and concerns with issues of equality, freedom and justice for individuals and groups. His films have forceful sense of commitment: CITY OF HOPE (1991) is an ambitious, angry story exploring the social and economic destruction of New Jersey through a series of criss-crossing narratives and an ensemble cast; LIANNA is a more personal film about a wife and mother coming to terms with her sexuality and the moral complexities of her lesbianism; I love these two films, but it is LONE STAR that is his most accomplished film.
Chris Cooper plays sherif Sam Deeds who investigates the discovery of a human skeleton in the desert near the town of Frontera, on the Texan side of the Mexican- USA boarder.
Early in the film there is a scene where the racial tensions come to surface at the school. The parent’s committee are debating the version of history that is being presented to their children. The Mexican population are in the majority but are they are politically in the minority. The blacks are pushed to the army base on the edge of town. The teacher reminds the parents that history is never a simple, one-sided affair. The people speak proudly about Texan heritage and its independence from the federal state, and the image of ‘Lone Star’ is repeated in the background in the bars and on flags. However, Sayles is interested in how it is impossible for societies or individuals to exist separately from each other and the borders between them that need to be crossed.
The dead man is soon identified as Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) a corrupt, ruthless sherif who was responsible for a reign of terror over the blacks and Mexicans. In the 50s Sam Deed’s father was his deputy and he becomes convinced that he was responsible for the murder. The mythology of Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) hangs heavy over his son as he is constantly reminded by the people in the town that he is a pale shadow of him.
There is a great deal of sophistication in the writing as he explores the strata and dimensions that make up a society and the relationships within them and how personal history interacts with the psychology of place. The camera moves from the past to the present, cleverly indicating how the psycho-geography can be unlocked and infiltrate the present. It pans from the present to the past gracefully. Sam is desperate to discredit his father because of his disciplinarian approach, and his role in braking up his relationship with a Mexican girl. The revelation of what happened to Wade has more devastating implications than he could have anticipated.
I saw this film based on the recommendation of Barry Pickles, who I think selected it as one of his films of the year, on the same week that it was released. I’m fairly sure that’s how it went, but I maybe wrong, because at that time I was going to the cinema 3-4 times a week (those were the days). I saw it once at Manchester Cornerhouse seventeen years ago, and didn’t watch it again until last week. Many of those 90s films I saw at the cinema, have all but been erased from my memory, but LONE STAR is one that I have etched in my mind, because it stayed with me long after I left the cinema.