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The Past, Present, and Future of ‘Lone Star’

John Sayles’s 1996 film may have been overshadowed by other indie triumphs that year, but 25 years later, the tale of a Texas cop on an existential tightrope continues to hold weight

Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

“It’s not like there’s a line between the good people and the bad people.”

Lone Star centers on a hero navigating that hypothetical divide like a high-wire act—a cop on a thin-blue tightrope. After initially departing the parched Texan border town of Rio County for the greener pastures of San Antonio, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) returned to run for sheriff on the strength of his DNA; back in the 1960s, his father Buddy (Matthew McConaughey) was a local hero, flashing an untarnished golden badge and an easy, matinee-idol smile as emblems of state and moral authority. Sam’s campaign slogan—“One Good Deeds Deserves Another”—leaned heavily on the idea of family branding, but there’s no shade for a prodigal son in his daddy’s shadow, and no future either. As the film opens, the character is contemplating abandoning his post, but after some old bones are unexpectedly exhumed in the desert, Sam finds himself growing naturally into the role he’d rejected—and learning more than he’d like to know about the good, bad, and ugly particulars of his hometown.

In 1996, Lone Star felt like a self-conscious throwback by a filmmaker who’d made a career of hopping between genres. It was a tricky, noir-tinged Western steeped in swift, glancing allusions to cultural, military, and filmic history. The film got the acclaim it deserved, including an Academy Award nomination for its original script, but didn’t claw its way into the canon like its Oscar-night rival Fargo, a movie with more of a flair for the absurd that could nevertheless be its bizarro twin.

Twenty-five years later, Lone Star is as much of a relic as the bleached remains that figure into its stark, mysterious cold open: a fluid, literate, and politically complex (as opposed to programmatic) independent American movie that respects its audience’s intelligence and fulfills an appetite for moral, intellectual, and ideological ambiguity. Over and over throughout the movie, Sam listens patiently while old-timers tell him that they “broke the mold” when they made his dad—the man has been immortalized in a bronze statue outside city hall. (Sam doesn’t smile when he looks at it.) And while there’s nothing necessarily mold-breaking about Lone Star’s basic setup or style—certainly not when compared to other entries in the modern neo-noir cycle, bookended in the ’80s and ’90s by the Coens’ Blood Simple and Fargo—its qualities of thoughtful, hard-edged sociological storytelling and analysis are currently in short supply. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

More specifically, John Sayles hasn’t made a movie in almost a decade, since 2013’s underseen—and, even by the indie stalwart’s thrifty standards, seriously microbudget—drama Go for Sisters. Somewhere in the 2010s, the filmmaker previously defined as much by his industriousness as his intelligence started to slow down, but before that, the Schenectady-born novelist turned director was one of the most vital voices in American cinema, steadily cultivating a body of work that served as a workable model for other DIY-minded types.

Sayles’s output was uncanny in the way it simultaneously reflected and repudiated industry trends, one cheapjack, antiestablishment riff at a time. In the late 1970s, he scripted a series of cheeky B movies for Roger Corman that commented, however obliquely, on the developing blockbuster revolution. How else could one read 1978’s Piranha (directed by Sayles’s pal Joe Dante) but as a termite-art satire of Steven Spielberg’s (great) white hit Jaws, with thousands of nibbling little fishes in place of a rubbery animatronic shark? 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars (directed by Jimmy T. Murakami) was a discount Star Wars with special effects work by a then-unknown James Cameron; in 1984, observing the success of E.T.—a project to which he had contributed a crucial early draft—Sayles won a MacArthur Fellowship and emerged with his own little-alien-lost fable, The Brother From Another Planet, starring Joe Morton as a mute Black extraterrestrial lost in Harlem.

An ingeniously conceived allegory that uses its protagonist’s silence as a sounding board for dozens of hilariously loquacious speaking roles—including a pair of deadpan Men in Black played by Sayles and David Strathairn—The Brother From Another Planet was one of a half-dozen genuinely inspired features that Sayles churned out in the early phase of his career. In the 1980s, the tall, trim, and charmingly articulate filmmaker occupied the role of indie cinema’s ruling, socially conscious conscience, starting with plaudits (and critics’ group awards) for Return of the Secaucus Seven, a caustic comedy about a septet of campus radicals who reunite over an alternately affectionate and acrimonious long weekend. Lawrence Kasdan denied ripping Sayles off for his box-office smash The Big Chill, but the similarities between the two movies are undeniable, though less important than the differences. In the same way that The Brother From Another Planet politicized the vintage sci-fi tropes that Spielberg simply leaned on for charm in E.T., Return of the Secaucus Seven takes its left-wing characters’ values—and their desire to cling to them in the Reagan ’80s—seriously, while The Big Chill offers mostly triumphal, Motown-soundtracked absolution of the prospects of selling out.

Sayles’s movies typically hinge on moral dilemmas: In 1988’s wonderfully atmospheric baseball movie Eight Men Out, Sayles dramatized the same 1919 World Series gambling scandal that Field of Dreams gently swept under the rug a year later in lieu of sleepy, platitudinous father-son bonding rituals. Sayles wasn’t a dreamer, but a realist, and in a decade when showmen from Reagan to Rocky eagerly cloaked themselves in red-white-and-blue iconography, he probed and prodded patriotism from every angle. Sayles pushed past the cozy nostalgia of American Graffiti in his tough-minded period teen romance Baby It’s You, outclassing the mall-rat fantasies of John Hughes; he dared to depict a relatable, non-salacious same-sex love affair in the quietly trailblazing Lianna. And, best of all, he memorialized striking coal miners in the blistering docudrama Matewan, which hearkened back to Heaven’s Gate sans Michael Cimino’s gigantism and with a clear, combative sense of political purpose, heroizing labor in a way that few directors of the era dared, much less succeeded at.

In a perfect world, Sayles would have had a real commercial breakthrough like the other members of the Spike-Mike-Slackers-and-Dykes cohort. Lone Star was probably the closest he came, earning $12.4 million on a $3 million budget. Where The Brother From Another Planet had kidded its generic trappings, Lone Star embraced them, and the 10-gallon hats and six-shooters emphasized in its ad campaign did their part to entice viewers in the wake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. “One of the things that Lone Star is about, to me, is the way in which American culture has always, always been many cultures,” Sayles said in 1996, and indeed, the fictional Rio County is depicted as a modest epicenter of conflicting identities and agendas. An early scene in which a group of concerned parents rail against schoolteacher Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) for trying to broaden—and deconstruct—the typical curriculum of “Remember the Alamo” grandstanding gets at Sayles’s theme, which is the question of who gets to write history, whether on an individual or national scale.

Lone Star’s detective-movie structure works on two levels, using Sam’s inquiry into the identity of the body discovered on a sun-baked military rifle range to play whodunit while filling in character backstories that resonate beyond the boundaries of the plot. This is a movie in which even as the pieces fall into place, there’s a sense of a larger world where resolution doesn’t come easily, if at all. Sam’s mixed feelings about his father are mirrored by the tensions between Pilar and her mother, Mercedes (Miriam Colon), a Mexican-born restaurateur with a wary, weary worldview. They’re also balanced against the multigenerational strife triangulated by a trio of Black men: teenage army recruit Chet (Eddie Robinson); his officer father, Delmore (Joe Morton); and Delmore’s estranged father, Otis (Ron Canada), who runs a local watering hole that doubles as a space of Black sanctuary. “For a lot of people here,” Otis explains, “It’s either the church or Big O’s.”

Sayles’s movies are like regional adventures. Among his many gifts as a writer, he has a knack for building entire scenes out of a stray, eccentric detail, like an old woman incongruously obsessed with a Game Boy or a couple of guys messing around with metal detectors. His characters’ small talk conceals big feelings (“At my age, you learn a new name, you gotta forget an old one”), and he’s also peerless at sketching the way that municipal institutions function as social and behavioral ecosystems crawling with predators, prey, and vaguely amused bystanders. In Lone Star, Otis’s bar, Delmore’s military base, and various offices of local government all become staging grounds for drama and critique. Everywhere we look, real estate is a source of contention or opportunity, just as you’d expect in a place where different factions lay claim to the ground beneath their feet.

Sayles makes potent subtext out of the plans by a few civic fathers to gift Rio County with a new prison, evoking frontier fantasies of law and order as well as the Clinton-era zeitgeist of America as a carceral state. And at a moment when Quentin Tarantino was torquing independent cinema (and Hollywood) in the direction of a reckless, irreverent political incorrectness, Sayles’s fully integrated movie stays alert to the insidious, insinuating language and protocols of racism, whether it’s barbs traded in a bar or taunts proffered from behind the barrel of a gun. Morton’s military man weighs his respect for the chain of command against recognition of his Black charges’ expendability; Colon’s matriarch has internalized the logic of bigotry to the point of referring to her own staff as “wetbacks” and urging them to abjure their native tongue. “It’s always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice,” cracks one character, a good joke that also nestles nicely amid the archaeological metaphors dotting Lone Star’s script. All that digging, whether for gold, bones, or to lay foundations, hints at multiple, deeply stratified layers of resentment, repression, and subterfuge. This architecture is no less intricate for being kept out of view for most of the movie’s spacious two-hour-plus running time.

All of Sayles’s exquisite construction and cutting one-liners (“Frontera, Texas: gateway to inexpensive pussy”) would be for naught if the actors didn’t hold up their end. The ensemble work in Lone Star is close to flawless, including an amazing one-scene cameo by Frances McDormand, who delivers a pent-up, fluttering performance as Sam’s football-fanatic ex-wife Bunny (the near-rhyme with Buddy is very intentional) that’s 180 degrees from her role in Fargo. Cooper would go on to greater acclaim playing grotesques like the closeted, Nazi-memorabilia buff in American Beauty and his Oscar-winning Adaptation. orchid thief, but he’s never been better than the laconic, haunted Sam, who often (but not always) gets the last word and doesn’t necessarily take pleasure in being the smartest (or most honest) guy in the room.

Cooper’s sturdy performance is complemented by a couple of beguiling variations on the archetype of the small-town lawman. Kris Kristofferson is Sam’s villainous, long-vanished predecessor Charlie Wade—the likely source of those bones in the desert, resurrected at regular intervals by the story’s flashback structure. Then-ascendant Matthew McConaughey is Buddy Deeds, who’s seen more briefly than Charlie but long enough to make a powerful impression. The same summer that Lone Star came out, McConaughey was being packaged as a firebrand leading man—a new Newman or Redford—in A Time to Kill, but his role in Sayles’s film better emphasizes his skill set. There’s a stillness to the young Buddy that signifies equally as watchful and sinister, and McConaughey’s otherworldly handsomeness gives the character the necessary mythic bearing. (He’s like his own monument.) As for Kristofferson, who doesn’t get credit for being one of the most effortless actors around, he’s simply brilliant, projecting the low, sadistic cunning of a man who gets off on abusing his own power.

There’s more than a hint of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance in Charlie Wade, and Sayles is as interested as John Ford was in the idea of history happening somewhere off in the shadows, and of the yearning for convenient, past-tense fictions to help sustain a workable, present-tense reality. “Print the legend,” goes the famous line in Ford’s film, and Lone Star builds to a similarly powerful and ambivalent bit of dialogue—one that resolves a twist much bigger than who killed Charlie Wade and why. In Lone Star, sin is real, the sins of the father above all. But intentions also count for something, wherever the road they pave may lead. Lone Star’s greatness lies in the way it observes—and understands—the long-simmering divisions between its characters while suspending judgement about ongoing cycles of blame, hatred, and retaliation that can no more easily be wished away than worked through; if Sayles is too decent to be a cynic, he’s also too smart to be an idealist. For all its skepticism about the American tendency to mythologize (and mass market) its sins away, the film is tender about the necessity of forgetting, or at least trying to. It’s a measure of Sayles’s superlative construction that a story that begins with something being unearthed ends with a plea to keep another secret buried—and of his empathy as an artist that the sentiment rings true. “Print the legend” may make a plea for amnesia, but Lone Star is worth remembering.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.