John Sayles is one of the veterans of American independent film, a chronicler of the fate of those mostly invisible blue-collar Americans, and he financed the making of his films by writing scripts and editing other people’s scripts for commercial films. “Lone Star” is probably his most famous and commercially successful film, a modern western that hides a lot under the surface. Only at first “Lone Star” can seem like a typical Hollywood film of that time, because the film begins with the discovery of a skeleton in the Texas desert, right next to the border with Mexico. We soon learn that the bones belong to a notorious sheriff who disappeared back in the fifties, and the current sheriff of the same Rio County is convinced that this long-ago death must somehow be connected to his father, who was also the sheriff of the same place.
Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) returned to his hometown after a divorce and was soon elected sheriff mainly because his father Buddy (Matthew McCounaghey) was once the sheriff there. And not only the sheriff, Buddy is a legend of the place whose monument is being erected, and just as everyone has a different memory of the old sheriff, so all the residents of this real melting pot have a different view of the entire history. Rio County is a place where whites, blacks, Mexicans and even Indians live together and from their perspectives history is completely different. And not only the general one, but also the recent history of the place, because while for white people the old sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) whose bones were found in the desert was a legend, for everyone else he was a sick sadist, a cold-blooded killer and a guy who ran a racket all who lived in his district.
We will understand that forty years ago there were many who had a reason to kill him, but the investigation of the case from several decades ago is only apparently the key determinant of a brilliantly structured film that earned Sayles a nomination for best screenplay. It’s a story about history and the present, fathers and sons, forbidden loves, suppressed and dark secrets that, just like the bones of the old sheriff, were buried deep somewhere, but now they will start to surface. It’s a subtle Americana about the generation gap and the realization of how much Texas and America have changed on the surface in those forty years, but the same problems as before are still there, they just manifest in a different way.
We see that the world, especially in such smaller provincial places, has always and everywhere functioned in the same way and that the law of the stronger is decisive. The one who is stronger and will impose himself will write history, be it ancient or recent, general or local. “Lone Star” is a truly comprehensive film and a masterful combination of thriller and drama, a modern Western that covers numerous themes and perfectly captures the moment of a certain time and space. There are not many films that so precisely, deeply and complexly show the way people really live somewhere and how they think and how they relate to each other. How they might remember with nostalgia a history that was actually not so wonderful and beautiful, but dark, cruel and filled with violence.
Sheriff Sam Deeds is a great character, an obviously disillusioned guy in his forties who doesn’t even know why he accepted the job of sheriff he despises so much and why he returned to his father’s shadow, from which he never really came out. There is also the forbidden love with the teacher Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), with whom he was in a relationship as a teenager, but his father forbade him to be with her, and now the old flame has rekindled. One of the reasons why Sam accepted the position of sheriff is perhaps a subconscious desire to expose the entire corrupt system, both functional and valuable, which still lives on myths and legends almost at the level of the wild west. And while the sheriff in the present puts together a mosaic of events from four decades ago, the film’s story also comes full circle and we realize that nothing here is black and white.