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Bordering on Genius

The lean, windburned sheriff at the heart of John Sayles's Lone Star descends directly from the classic lawmen of Hollywood's Old West--quiet loners obsessed with raw justice and denied the comforts of home. But Sayles's present-day creation, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), has a slightly different bale of hay to burn. He's not only the conscience of a hot Texas border town long divided by bigotry and dark secrets, he's the seeker who must reconcile mythology and fact, parents and children, violence and love.

This would have been a tall order even in Gary Cooper's day. In a place aptly named Frontera, on the Rio Grande, in the 1990s, it's a mission more suited to a historian or philosopher than a cop. But it wouldn't do for the cop to leave his Colt at home as he confronts the ghosts of a disturbing past, their thumbs still pressed to the throat of the present.

When two soldiers from a neighboring army base find a human skeleton in the desert, our Mr. Deeds (has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?) soon discovers that the remains are those of Charley Wade, the corrupt former sheriff of Rio County, who vanished without a trace almost forty years earlier. Wade had plenty of enemies among those he terrorized and shook down for bribes, but to complicate matters, it was Sam Deeds's own late father, then-deputy sheriff Buddy Deeds, who might have had the best reason to do the man in. As Sam delves into this old mystery, he must deal with the shadow of a father an entire town has turned into a heroic legend, with the possibility that the legend was also a murderer, and with his own fears and shortcomings.

"Sheriff Deeds dead," one citizen tells him. "You sheriff junior."
In earlier films, notably Eight Men Out, a treatment of the Chicago Black Sox scandal, and Matewan, about a tragic labor dispute in the 1920s, the novelist in John Sayles (which is to say the plotter, the planner, the careful ironist of Union Dues and Los Gusanos) sometimes seemed to inhibit the filmmaker in him. There was at times such a thick literary encrustation around Sayles's movies that they couldn't seem to breathe. In Lone Star, I think, he has for the first time effected a reconciliation of his own between the prose writer and the moviemaker that gives the picture a richness and a resonance that not even his best previous work displayed.

Sayles deftly weaves the dramas of three families, two time periods and more than a dozen characters into his Frontera, Texas, tapestry, and that's evidence of a good, big-canvas writer at work. But even at two hours and seventeen minutes, the movie sails along like Hitchcock. While Sam Deeds grapples with the stubborn presence of his dead father, a black family called the Paynes works through the hard legacy of racism in south Texas, expressed in the divergent paths of a canny father who's long been in the saloon business (Ron Canada), an alienated son making it in the Army (Joe Morton), and a grandson bewildered by the gulf between them (Eddie Robinson). The Cruz family is mysteriously divided, too. The matriarch, Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), is a successful businesswoman and the picture of buttoned-up conservatism; daughter Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), who teaches history at the local high school, has been severed from her history (there's that ironist at work again); Pilar's teenage son looks headed for trouble. Like everyone else, they are bound by an old secret.

That all these people (and some others) are in one way or another connected to the death of Sheriff Charley Wade (played in flashbacks by a menacing Kris Kristofferson) almost goes without saying. While examining nothing less than the social, racial, generational and sexual barriers that divide almost all Americans everywhere, Sayles also has conjured up a complex and intriguing murder mystery. Consider it: a thoughtful, detailed portrait of a society in trouble, which the painter manages to suffuse with humor and hope, fueled by the mystery of a bleached skull and a tarnished star, suddenly come to light in an uneasy no-man's-land bisected by a river.

In Sayles's able hands, the combination is irresistible, the possibilities almost limitless. The members of his big cast (which also includes Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds and Clifton James as Frontera's crusty mayor, Hollis Pogue) are splendid in roles each of them must have savored for their depth and intelligence. Meanwhile, the subtle colorations Sayles brings to an emblematic border town where borders delineate everything produce a triumph of atmosphere. Frontera is not just an obscure burg in Texas where neighboring cultures and values collide; it's Anywhere, USA, and we're all standing in a dangerous intersection. More profoundly than any recent film I can think of, Lone Star captures the fears and furies of America in the Nineties and how we Americans created them. To behold that, six bucks is quite a bargain.

Lone Star.
Written and directed by John Sayles. With Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Ron Canada, Kris Kristofferson and Miriam Colon.

 
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