Demystifying Lone Star

Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

I've only been trying to get across the complexity of our situation down here... cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways.
If you're talking about food or music and all, I have no problem with it, but when you start changing who did what to who...
We're not changing anything. We're just trying to present a more complete picture.
And that has got to stop!

Writer/director John Sayles has had an illustrious career, with ten films in sixteen years under his belt since his early days in the Roger Corman school-of-filmmaking (he wrote "Pirahna" in those days), in addition to his screenwriting work, such as in "Apollo 13". His films have always been distinctive pieces that spin stories and themes around the complex relationships that link communities, from "Return of the Secauscus Seven" in 1980 (the inspiration for "The Big Chill") to "The Brother from Another Planet", "The Secret of Roan Inish", and the film that "Lone Star" most closely resembles, "City of Hope". "Lone Star", perhaps one of the best films of 1996 (joining "The English Patient" "Secrets and Lies" and "Fargo"), continues in this vein, with a richly-woven tapestry that links different characters of different races in Rio County on the Texas-Mexico border. It is both a story- and theme-driven cinematic masterpiece that unfolds like a novel, gradually linking the disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, that leaves an impression on you and begs for discussion after viewing.

Look at this, willya? Tackle. Boat. All just to catch a little old fish minding his own business down at the bottom of the lake. Hardly seem worth the effort, does it Sam?

In 1996, a skeleton, a mason ring, and a Sheriff's badge are found on a military rifle range out in the desert. Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper, who also played a deputy in "A Time to Kill") is the Sheriff in Rio County, having returned from outside Rio County after a failed marriage. He is overshadowed by the legendary reputation of his father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConnaughey (the lawyer from "A Time to Kill"), whom he does not think too highly of. Sam investigates the body, and is convinced that the body is that of a bigoted and corrupt ex-Sheriff, Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson, in a great sinister role), and that it was his father that put him there. And so he searches into the past, in an attempt to prove his theory.

Along the way, several other stories occur in tandem, involving other peripheral characters, which at first seem to have no connection to the forty-year old murder mystery. Pilar (Elizabeth Pina, bringing warmth and vulnerability to her role) is a history teacher that is dealing with an unruly teenage son and her unrequited love for Sam, who she has not seen since high school. There's Mercedes Cruz, a wealthy Hispanic businesswoman that owns a local cafe, and happens to be Pilar's mother, and disapproves of Pilar's involvement with Sam.

Bet you'd never figured you'd end up back here.
The Army offers you a command, you go. Wherever.

In a story that closely parallels that of Sam's, Colonel Del Payne (Joe Morton) assumes a new command at Fort McKenzie, which is due to be shut down in a short time. It is his first time back to Rio County, and he must confront his estranged father, Otis (Ron Canada), who runs the local bar Big O's, when a shooting in the bar involves soldiers under his command.

"Lone Star", despite its setting on a border town, where there is much friction between the Mexicans, the Blacks, and the Anglos, is not merely an issue-driven film that deals with race relations and how we can 'all get along'. No, "Lone Star" has a strong structure underneath the unpredictable and enthralling narrative-- Sayles provides the audience with a continuum between borders, the past and the present, and the law vs. justice.

You joke about it Sam, but we are in a state of crisis-- the lines of demarcation are getting fuzzy. To run a successful civilization, you have got to have your lines of demarcation between right and wrong, between this'un and that'un. Your daddy understood that... he was, what do you call it, referee for this damn Menudo we got down here. He understood that most people don't want their salt and sugar in the same jar.
Boy, if you mixed drinks as bad as you mix metaphors, you'd be out of a job.

Rio County is polarized between the different races that inhabit its borders. Relations between these races are antagonistic, with each group having their own neighborhoods and watering holes. Some of the deputies are racist, the PTA can't agree on whose view of local history should be taught, 19 out of 20 people in the county are of Mexican origin, which has the Anglos feeling uncomfortable, and the racist legacy of Charlie Wade continues to live on. However, Sayles presents an alternative to this factionalized-mindset, which looks beyond one's own beliefs and convictions, in an attempt to instill a sense of community and interdependence. This is probably best illustrated by this conversation between the Colonel and a young black private under his command:

They got people to fight, you know... Arabs, yellow people. Might as well use us.
It works like this private... every soldier in the war doesn't have to believe in what he's fighting for. Most of them just back up the other soldier's in their squad. They try not to get them killed, try to not get them extra duty... you try not to get yourself embarrassed in front of them.

The continuum of the past and the present is best exemplified by the numerous transition shots that Sayles uses for the flashbacks back to 1957 and 1973. For example, as Hollis, the town's mayor and former deputy under Wade's thumb, outlines the final confrontation between Deeds and Wade, the camera pans down onto a plate of tortillas while Hollis speaks. The camera then pans back up, and it is 1957, with Wade and Deeds at the table. In "Lone Star", there is no clear delineation between what happened 'then' and what is happening 'now'-- they feed into one another, making both inseparable.

People, people! I think it would be best if we didn't view this thing in terms of winners and loser.
But with the way she's teaching it, she's got everything switched around! I was on the textbook committee and her version is not historical.
We think the textbook is a guide, not as an absolute.

And this perspective on the past and present is what the majority of the characters are wrestling with throughout the film. Sam, who never thought much of his father, is determined to prove that he was a murderer and a thief. Colonel Del Payne is unwilling to come to terms with his father for abandoning him and his mother when he was young. Mercedes tries very hard to suppress her Mexican heritage, by insisting that all her staff speak English in the restaurant, and reporting any illegal aliens to the Texas Border Patrol. A young private under the Colonel's command, who extricated herself from a chaotic life in the inner city, is haunted by an old habit (drugs) and an old flame (the reason for the shooting in Big O's). The Colonel's son is being pushed to go to Westpoint, like his father, but he is not sure if he wishes to follow in his father's footsteps (much like Sam and the Colonel himself). The PTA meeting over whose view of history should be taught to the kids, the Mexican or the Anglo version. And at the very end of the film, in a most unexpected plot twist, Sam and Pilar come to the realization that Buddy was involved with Mercedes shortly before Pilar was born-- in essence, Sam and Pilar are half-brother and sister and they must decide how to proceed with their relationship, if at all. I believe what is being said in all these instances is that one does not have to make a choice between embracing the past and embracing the present. No, the above plot threads are all resolved when the characters acknowledge the shared history, good or bad, and do not let it affect the relationships or opportunities afforded to them in the present.

There's not enough of us around here to run anything. It's Holiness Church, or Big O's.
And people make a choice?
Most of them choose both. You see, it's not as though there is a borderline between the good people and the bad people. You're not either one side or the other.

A continuum is also established between the law and justice. Sam starts off at the beginning of "Lone Star" unable to differentiate between the two, which he believes are one and the same. However, as he delves further into the history of Rio County, he finds that the two are on opposite ends of a spectrum, and that everyone he knows is somewhere in between the two. He is under the impression that there was essentially no difference between Charlie Wade and his father, who succeeded him. Both did unlawful things, such as taking kickbacks. However, he soon learns that Buddy Deeds did these illegal acts to ensure that justice was served. For example, Charlie had shot Mercedes first husband in cold blood on a roadside. After Wade 'disappeared', Buddy stole $10,000 from the town's treasury as widow's benefits for Mercedes, so that she could open up the restaurant. So though it was true that Buddy did some unlawful things much like his predecessor, he did have a sense of justice to be admired. The ultimate representation of this dichotomy would be the possibly-incestuous relationship between Pilar and Sam. Yes, it would be illegal for them to be involved together, but it would be just, given their truly sincere feelings for one another. It's not that Sayles is advocating or denouncing their controversial relationship-- no, he is merely illustrating the distinction.

Getting back to Sam and Pilar, it is these two characters that embody all the themes of the film. Their love transcends all borders (he's Anglo, she's Mexican) and they recognize their unexpected connection in the past but do not let it interfere with their future together.

If I met you today, I'd still want to be with you.
We start from scratch?
All that other stuff-- all that history... to hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.

"Lone Star" is probably one film that you will have to see at least two or three times to appreciate the subtleties found in Sayle's writing and how they all support the theme-driven aspects of the film. It is rare that such an elaborately-crafted film can also be story-driven like "Lone Star", which not only makes it excellent on a pure entertainment standpoint, but it also allows for different levels of interpretation. A true representation of the adage that "film is literature".

If word gets out who the body was, people are gonna think Buddy done it.
Buddy's a goddamn legend... he can handle it.

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