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Lone Star  

Starring: Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Elizabeth Pena, Ron Canada, Joe Morton, Miriam Colon, Clifton James, Frances McDormand Directed by: John Sayles Written by: John Sayles

At the beginning of John Sayles' "Lone Star", we see two men out in the Texas desert. One is admiring the local plant and cactus life. The other makes a remark about how barren the land is. "What do you mean? There's plenty of life out here. Sure, there are cactuses, but there are different kinds of cactuses. There are so many different kinds of plants. You just have to look harder," replies the other. Indeed we do. And indeed we will. Not with the Texas plant life, but with the generations of people who have lived in the small town nearby. Just as plants are an integral part of the earth, so are these people. It's a wonderful setup, starting us on a journey in which we will learn about these people; who they are, how they think, what they feel, and how their actions will affect the lives of those who will one day live the breathe the same air. "Lone Star" is a film that provides us with the most precious of cinematic gifts: something to think about long after we've left the theatre. It is quite simply John Sayles' finest film.

The story is fueled by a mystery. Skeletal remains are found just outside a small town near the Texas/Mexico border. Also found with the remains is a sheriff's badge. It's up to the local sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) to investigate. He already has a hunch as to whom the remains belong to. Most of the town has a good idea as to whom the remains belong to - that of Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a vicious and brutal man who was sheriff several years back, and who mysteriously vanished during his reign of terror. Sam also believes he may already have the answer to who killed him - Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), one of Wade's deputies who became sheriff after Wade disappeared. Buddy Deeds also happened to be Sam Deed's father, and passed away shortly before the story takes place. Did Buddy kill Charlie Wade? Sam certainly has his suspicions. Perhaps many of the townspeople have their suspicions as well, although they are not as vocal in expressing them, mainly because Buddy was the most respected sheriff the town has ever had. Everyone in town remembers Buddy Deeds as a legend - except Sam, who remembers him as a kind of tyrannical shadow that he could never get out from under. The people in town are aware of Sam's feeling of resentment toward his father, and in response, are somewhat resentful of him. (In one scene, Sam arrives at the doorstep of an older woman and says: "Hello ma'am. It's Sheriff Deeds." And she replies by saying: "There is no Sheriff Deeds anymore. You're Sheriff Junior.")

In addition to conducting his investigation, he gets back in touch with an old high school girlfriend (Elizabeth Pena) whom he never fell out of love with, even after all the years that passed. Her feelings for him have never dwindled, either. They rekindle an old flame that has managed to stay brightly lit through all the dark moments the two of them had been through in those years apart.

The film also shows us the lives of so many other characters. We meet Otis Payne (Ron Canada), the owner of the only local bar which accepts African-American patrons. His bitter son, Delmore (Joe Morton), an army colonel who is not happy at all about being reassigned to nearby Fort MacKenzie, too close to his father who abandoned him as a child. Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), a woman whose husband was killed by Charlie Wade long ago, and who seems to blame herself for falling in love, rather than the man responsible for her husband's death. Hollis Pogue (Clifton James), the mayor who may know more about Sam's investigation than he is letting on. And Sam's ex-wife, Bunny (Frances McDormand), whose manic-depressive state may have resulted from a husband never there for her emotionally.

The mystery has a whopper of an ending, but it's not really the mystery that is at the heart of this film. It's the characters and how they relate to one another. Thus, the performances have to be right on target, which of course, they are. Chris Cooper is saddled with perhaps the most thankless role; a good deal of the time he simply pokes around town, asking questions, continuing his investigation. His most shining moments come in his scenes with Elizabeth Pena. The two of them together are terrific, particularly in the scene where they dance to their favorite song as teenagers, in the dining room of her mother's restaurant. Kris Kristofferson, with his rugged facial features and raspy voice, creates a character in Charlie Wade whose evil seems to come not from anything in his past, but directly from the pores of his very existence. Ron Canada and Joe Morton make a convincing father and son who have not spoken in quite some time, yet they only have one scene together. Their defining moments come in separate scenes - for Delmore (Morton), it's when he confronts a cadet who tested positive for drugs. He asks her why she joined this army, and gets a brutally honest answer. For Otis (Canada), it's in a nice scene where he talks to his grandson for the first time.

John Sayles seems to have a knack for juggling many characters and subplots and never losing track of the story he is telling. ("City of Hope" is another brilliant example.) Here, he manages to do that as well as use flashbacks to take us back to the events of the past that will shape the actions and attitudes of those in the present. He has so much to say, yet has figured out a way to say it so it creeps into our conscious mind long after we've seen his films. His movies are so unassuming, yet they never fail to leave some kind of an impact on my mind. The more I think about it, the more I get out of it. I can't ask for much more out of a film.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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