Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Lone Star

Directed by John Sayles
The United States of America

Forty years ago, Rio County Sheriff Charlie Wade vanished. A cruel, sadistic man, he took a perverse pleasure in extorting and terrifying the townsfolk. He was last seen in a dark bar having an argument with his new deputy Buddy Deeds. Wade had attempted to use him as a pawn in a drug pick-up. But he didn’t count on Buddy’s integrity. He stormed out of the bar and was never seen again. Nobody seemed to care much when he (and $10,000 from Rio County’s public coffer) disappeared. Buddy would follow Wade as sheriff for the next thirty years, becoming a beacon of justice and integrity until his death. If anyone might have had any suspicions about Wade’s fate and Buddy’s sudden rise to power...well, small towns may have long memories, but they also know when to leave well enough alone.

The last confrontation between Wade (left) and Buddy (right).

But Rio County’s convenient case of selective amnesia is soon challenged when two off-duty soldiers accidentally discover a skeleton in the desert with Wade’s old sheriff’s badge rusting away in the nearby dirt. With the specter of a 40 year old murder hovering over the countryside, none other than Buddy’s son, Sheriff Sam Deeds, is called upon to investigate. So begins John Sayles’ Lone Star, a magnificent film that isn’t so much a murder mystery as an exploration into the very soul of a community plagued with centuries of racial tension, violence, and unpleasant memories that refuse to fade away.

It seems that everyone in Rio County has a story. There’s Otis Payne, the owner of the bar that serves as a backdrop to Wade’s last appearance. Though he seems kindly enough, he harbors a lingering sadness over abandoning his son, Delmore, when he was just a child. That child, now grown up, is the new commander of the local Army base. He has to deal with local recruits who see the Army not as a patriotic calling, but a chance to escape Rio County’s economic miasma. Bitter over his father’s absence, Delmore has reigned such a terrible influence over his own son that he has become a stuttering, nervous wreck. Just like the rest of Rio County, one generation of pain fosters the next.

Delmore's son.

Then there’s Pilar Cruz, Sam’s high school crush. After being forcibly separated by their families, Pilar would go on to get married, have two children, and become a teacher. Now the husband is dead, the children rebellious teenagers, and the teaching position mired in local politics over what should and should not be included in their textbooks. The necessity of the case forces Sam to come knocking on her door, seeing as Wade had chillingly murdered her mother’s husband during a routine traffic stop over 40 years ago. Are they glad to see each other after all of this time? As Pilar points out, “Nobody stays in love for twenty-three years.”

And then there are the local Seminole Indians, the young Chicanos, and the disenfranchised outsiders wasting away at bars and in immaculate living rooms complete with big screen TVs. Sayles glides from one group to the next, dissecting the monsters lurking behind the different ghettos and neighborhoods. In one scene Delmore interrogates a young, black soldier who tested positive during an unannounced drug test. The ensuing exchange comes as close as anything in the film to uncovering the true nature of Rio’s racial scars.

“I’m just trying to understand how someone like you thinks.”
“You really wanna know?”
“It’s their country. This is one of the best deals they offer.”

Make no mistake, Rio County is not a melting pot. The different races tolerate each other because they have to live there. After all, where else do they have to go? 

John Sayles, one of the true titans of American independent cinema, is at his very best here in Lone Star. Ever since his early days with films like Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Sayles has demonstrated masterful skill in creating authentic, believable characters that capture the essence of their environments. These are not characters that are trotted out to recite a few lines in order to move the plot along. Delmore’s relationship with his son, for example, adds almost nothing to the central narrative concerning Wade’s murder. And yet, I couldn’t imagine the film without it. And yes, the mystery is finally resolved. But Sayles doesn’t linger on it. Instead, he is much more interested with how this revelation effects Sam’s relationship with Pilar. This is a film about people. As Pilar wisely suggests, “All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.”

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