|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 21 December 1999|
‘Lone Star’ tells us visually right up front in Chapter 1 that it’s going to be full of unexpected details, giving us the kinds of deep, verdant greens we associate with English forests – on the cacti growing in the hills along the Texas/Mexico border. Filmmaker John Sayles likes to tell specific stories within the context of presenting us with an insightful portrait of a culture. ‘Lone Star’ carries on this tradition, giving us a truly unpredictable murder mystery in the middle of a wonderfully interwoven knot of character studies, played out against the backdrop of changing social tides in the fictional town of Frontera, Texas.
Frontera’s current sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is all too aware of the long shadow cast by his late father Buddy (Matthew McConaughey, who has seldom been better than he is here), a lawman popular in his lifetime and near-mythic after his death. Although Buddy was a rule-bender, he was a paragon of virtue compared to his predecessor, the racist and homicidal Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). The tale of the night, now 40 years ago, when Buddy ran Charley out of town is a staple of local legend. When a long-dead skeleton uncovered on an abandoned rifle range turns out to be that of Wade, Sam is driven as both sheriff and son to probe the question of whether Buddy had a more sinister role than supposed in Wade’s disappearance.
Sayles is a superb storyteller. He skillfully incorporates layers of plot involving not only three generations of sheriffs but immigrants both legal and not, the bar that serves the local black community, the soon-to-close Army base outside of town, the running of an upscale Mexican restaurant and the internecine strife of the town school board. By the end of the film, all of these superficially disparate elements are inextricably woven together. We are given the opportunity to see how the pieces fit into the puzzle, yet the truth in many instances is still surprising while ever-plausible. Sayles has a laid-back, compellingly humane point of view that informs all the action and his ear for dialogue rings ever true and often startlingly funny.
The DVD release is surprisingly sparse and some odd decision-making went into its extras. Why, for a film set partly in Mexico, with a great number of Spanish-speaking protagonists, is there a French-language track and subtitles, but no Spanish-language track or subtitles? The soundtrack contains a lot of hot Tejano-style songs, starting strongly in Chapter 2. Chapter 24 has a rather original, potent aural use of gunfire – instead of trying to blow the speakers out, this shots are so matter-of-factly quiet that we, like the shocked witness, take a moment to register what’s actually happened. For those who like to check out the quality of a sound mix, Chapter 25 has a very realistic blend of footfalls on drive-in gravel contrasted with the sound coming from the drive-in speakers (though car horns late in the scene get a bit screechy). Chapter 37 has some very dramatic use of jazz that drives an already powerful sequence into unbearable tension, broken only when someone finally speaks.
As whodunit, social commentary and even romance, ‘Lone Star’ is as irresistible as a good novel, intelligent and gripping, with loads of personality as a bonus.