Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
“Gotta be careful where you’re pokin’,” says a character to sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper). “Who knows what you’ll find.”
John Sayles, in his many films, always creates worlds that are layered, complex and recognizable; never more so than in my favorite of his films, the noirish Western drama “Lone Star.” Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it’s both murder mystery and tense portrait of a small Texas border town where past and present uneasily rub shoulders at the local bar. Sayles (who wrote, directed and edited the film) expertly entwines the various storylines, sliding like a snake in and out of different time periods, letting his camera linger on someone’s haunted face.
After the film’s opening scenes reveal a skeleton discovered on an old shooting range, we meet the three main characters, each locked in a struggle with the past. Sam, whose late father Buddy Deeds (played in flashbacks by a young, electric Matthew McConaughey) was the town’s adored previous sheriff, is a slouchy khaki-clad stick of a man — quiet, competent and good at hiding inner turmoil. His father’s legacy is complicated — they didn’t get along — and Sam, newly returned to town after a divorce, is carrying a desperate torch for his Mexican American high school sweetheart, the wearily beautiful Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), now a teacher and recent widow. Their relationship, interrupted long ago when their parents disapproved, tentatively begins to resume.
Meanwhile, a new commander of the town’s army base, Colonel Delmore Payne (Joe Morton) arrives with his family; he’s the estranged son of Otis Payne (Ron Canada), who owns a bar that’s the center of the town’s Black community. All of these stories become connected as the film’s central mystery begins to take center stage: That skeleton is quickly determined to be the remains of vicious, racist former sheriff Charlie Wade (played by Kris Kristofferson in flashbacks), who mysteriously disappeared long ago. Sam, compelled to solve the crime, goes poking into the past, knowing that he might learn some things he’d rather not know.
He does, and we do, but the beauty of “Lone Star” is how we become a citizen of that border town: listening to conversations, feeling the heat of the evening, watching as tensions — racial, sexual, cultural — simmer. (One character notes, of the town, “Most folks don’t want salt and sugar in the same jar.”) We travel back in time with the characters, seeing Charlie’s violence, Sam and Pilar’s young love, Pilar’s mother Mercedes’ youth. Sayles slips us into the past with a graceful swing of the camera, reminding us that people change while places quietly wait. All of this is beautifully intertwined with music, both in its atmospheric soundtrack of songs of many genres (blues, Tejano, country) and the lilt of the language itself; note how the names “Buddy Deeds” and “Charlie Wade,” with their matching syllables, seem to play the same tune.
And this story of family and legacy — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, memories and secrets — is given life by a remarkable troupe of actors, each of whom Sayles gives time to breathe. Note Morton’s impeccable posture, a structure within which he holds his own pain; listen to the throaty richness of Peña’s voice as she slowly begins to let Sam back into her heart; watch as Cooper’s Sam gazes at Pilar like she’s a dream he doesn’t want to wake up from. Even the tiniest parts are impeccable: Frances McDormand — who won an Oscar that same year, for “Fargo” — is on-screen for maybe five minutes as Sam’s troubled ex-wife, Bunny; she makes the character, who struggles with mental illness, briefly hold the movie in her hands.
Made on a tiny budget, “Lone Star” was a big hit on the arthouse circuit on its release, with Sayles earning an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. But I wonder if the very quietness that makes it so compelling has caused it to be somewhat forgotten; I was surprised that there isn’t a Criterion edition of this film, nor is it easy to find. But it’s worth poking around to locate “Lone Star”; unlike Sam, you’ll have no regrets over what you uncover.