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During the film industry's traditional summer vacation from reality, "Lone Star" might be just enough to brings us, quite literally, back down to earth. Director John Sayles presents a skillfully woven tapestry of stories, part mystery and part cross-generational conflict. Beautiful camera work and several fine performances draw us effortlessly into the world and dusty history of a Texan town and of a sheriff searching for his father.
Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is the epitome of the easy-going, yet inquisitive town peacemaker--even his name seems responsible. Unfortunately, it's also the name of his legendary father in whose, enormous shadow he and the rest of the town, it seems, stands. The townspeople are happy to revere Deeds Sr. and Sam's "saint" of a mother. But the new Sheriff Deeds is determined to dig up dirt about his father, spurred on by the discovery of bones and badge belonging to the relentlessly reptilian Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson) whom old Sheriff Deeds may have killed. Add to the picture other family mini-dramas--another family's father-son conflict; Sam's high school sweetheart Pilar (Elizabeth Pena) and her family--and there's more than enough for the canvas.
And Sayles does indeed treat the small Texan Town ("Frontera") as a kind of continuous backdrop, across the generations, for all the plotlines. His camera technique reflects this: in lieu of the sudden cuts to flashbacks, he uses one, long camera movement to go back in time. The effect has the relaxed feel of a huge storybook page being turned. One moment, we see a confrontation between a young black man and old Sheriff Wade, ages ago, in a bar. Then the camera sweeps upward slowly--and we're staring in the face of Sheriff Sam Deeds, present-tense, listening to the same, now grey-templed man recount the story.
Such a belief in the endurance of place over time gives the movie an easy-going realism, with almost a social historian's slant. Sam's search for the true story of his father neatly parallels the brief conflict in one scene between Hispanics and whites in the community over what version of history to teach. As Sam listens to one account after another of various adventures related to the murder mystery, the movie's theme becomes interaction between story-telling and reality.
Sayles tries to keep Sam's never-ending search from getting too ponderous and repetitive by introducing one other major plot line. Basically, this consists of a colonel, Delmore, (Joe Morton) just transferred to the area as he struggles not to deal with his deadbeat dad Otis (Ron Canada) who always lived there. Since these issues are standard--wild father, overcompensatingly strict son, and day-dreaming third generation--these sub-plots are more valuable for the amusing ironies that come forth. For example, Otis keeps a back-shed museum of black Seminole artifacts and doesn't fail to point out to Delmore's son, who stumbles in, that it was the Delmore's beloved Army that drove these Native Americans west and away.
In the same ironic vein, Sayles first has Pilar's mother call the Border Patrol upon seeing two "wetbacks" (illegal immigrants across the Rio) and then reveals through a flashback her own frightening nightwade across the river. And Sam is constantly hearing what may or may not be cryptic don't-go-there messages in the stories of those he interviews. (Never know what you might find once you get to "poking around.")
As Sheriff Deeds continues his search, the movie proves sturdy enough, pulling us into the many threads of history that seem to tie everyone together in some way. Indeed, when Deeds seems to resolve things at the end, we are almost surprised to be reminded that Sam's search was meant to have an end: the moving study of relationships and dealings across the years is captivating enough without an overt conclusion.
As Sheriff Sam Deeds, Chris Cooper provides the stable, central force trying to pull scattered elements into his orbit: Sayles lingers over both his slow ambles and his surprised starts to great effect. Kris Kristofferson, as Sheriff Wade in the many flashbacks, comes off as both The Bad and The Ugly: his character's ruthless, corrosive evil spirit has afflicted him with the all-business look of one unafraid to kill if necessary or, preferably, unnecessary. Elizabeth Pena is fine, resorting only once or twice to awkwardness to feign emotion. Despite the rare slow point (run-of-the-mill stories do come up, after all), Sayles is too honestly interested in filming his characters' story-telling and story-acting for the audience to become restless. As a relaxed murder mystery, a view of smalltown politics, and a not at all taxing study in intergenerational relations, the movie is well worth a look and should not be left in the dust of its bigger-footed, ham-handed cousins the blockbusters. In short, the movie's pace and generational eye tends to leave you giving lingering, meaningful looks at the world and its stories around you--the perfect antidote to the speed-freak pace of most summer fare.
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