It has yet to be determined whether John Sayles is the best novelist directing movies or the best director writing novels, but both talents are on display in "Lone Star," opening today at the Rotunda.
The novelist in him drives Sayles to dense plots that evoke real issues of both policy and pain, that evoke complete universes.
The director in him keeps his scenes short and pungent, keeps the story moving swiftly with enough grace to sustain the dance of several plot lines while stopping now and then to find a crisp image to express a complex idea.
And, unlike most filmmakers or novelists, he's interested in Big -- Themes: racism and the control of society; the role of the law in helping some twist the system to their own use; the struggle of people of color to be seen. And after all that, he isn't afraid to use the most popular -- and cheapest -- of forms.
In fact, in theme, "Lone Star" could be said to resemble the cheesiest in popular culture, on back to "Peyton Place" and "The Bramble Bush" of the '50s: sensationalized small-town soap opera where the mayor is sleeping with the police chief's wife while the police chief is bedding down the mayor's secretary and the alderman is secretly embezzling funds from the school board.
In Sayles' case, the genre is even more specific: small town, Southern style, with its cross-generational, cross-racial secrets buried but simmering toward explosion -- but he's invested it with a great deal of zing and zip.
What occasionally gets him in trouble is his novelist's love of character: He wants to tell everybody's story, whether it's relevant to the plot or not. He's like Dickens on too much caffeine: he just can't stop inventing new people, giving them quirks, twitches, subtexts, memories, nuclear and extended families, love lives, inner dramas and some new kind of cowboy boot.
The town is Frontera, in southwest Texas, in Rio County, right on the border, where local Anglo big shots have conspired to make a sheriff out of Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), who is the son of the famed Sheriff Buddy Deeds, who ruled the town in apparent peace, justice and universal adoration for two decades. The white boys know he'll be the last white sheriff, as the town's majority Hispanic population is beginning to express its power politically and take over.
But Sam Deeds, as it turns out, is much his father's son. He can't leave things alone and he can't follow orders. When a 40-year-old skeleton is found out by the Army post, Deeds suspects that it's the body of Charlie Wade, the sheriff who preceded his father in office. If Buddy was the good, Charlie was the bad: corrupt, violent, racist and, to boot, he loved to pull out that big Ol' Peacemaker and blow people out of their socks. He was a bribe-taker and a man-killer. (Kris Kristofferson is chilling in the role.)
Charlie disappeared one night and everybody thought he'd lit out for greener pastures with 10 grand in purloined city funds. Now it's clear he was murdered that night and the prime suspect is Sam's sainted father.
Of course, like the son of many great men, Sam has his own hidden agenda of resentments. While others worship his father, what Sam remembers is the harsh disciplinarian who viciously prevented him from being with the girl he knew he loved at 14 and now, at 40, still knows he loves (Elizabeth Pena).
Sayles has great luck merging the present into the past, as the camera slides gracefully between time frames, from father to son and back again. We see Rio County in the '50s; we see it now, in the '90s; in this way we track the impact of the events back then as they rippled across time.
As Sam, Cooper is good, restrained, but I think this role had to be written for Sam Shepard, who would have brought it off with more gravitas. Matthew McConaughey, soon to be a major star because of next Wednesday's "A Time To Kill," registers strongly in three flashbacks as the legendary Buddy Deeds, but his resemblance to the young Paul Newman is so powerful it's a little disorienting. In the literally dozens of other speaking roles, performers as diverse as Ron Canada, Joe Morton and Clifton James give solid, unhistrionic performances.
"Lone Star" is really the way we were -- and are.
Starring Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Pena
Directed by John Sayles
Released by Castle Rock
Rated R (violence, profanity)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 7/19/96