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Canon Entry - Lone Star (1996)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.


It’s usually not a good sign if a film can be described as “literary” or “novel-like.” While writing is an important part of creating narrative films, they are obviously different mediums and what works in one will probably not work in the other. I remember a long time ago when the third Harry Potter film came out when an impassioned coterie of my middle school students railed against the film for not being enough like the book, which was ironic since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the best-reviewed entries of that franchise. That may have been my first inkling of the vast disconnect between critics and regular, non-discriminating moviegoers.

However, to describe Lone Star as a novel is not at all an insult. In fact its narrative structure is one of its greatest strengths. The film follows Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) as he investigates a mysterious skull that a couple of townsfolk have stumbled upon by accident. He finds out quickly that the skull belonged to Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), the sheriff of his town whom his father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey), worked for (Buddy himself would later become sheriff). As Buddy tries to get down to the bottom of the story surrounding the skull, he engages with the many, colorful residents of the town, including, but not limited to, his father’s old co-worker, the owner of a bar that serves mainly the Black residents, and his old flame Pilar (Elizabeth Pena) who has been recently widowed.

We’ve seen this kind of movie before - the crime procedural. Even the crime procedural with colorful characters that throw red herrings recklessly at the detective/sheriff/PI is almost a hackneyed genre. Lone Star does not feel like these typical movies. There are so many characters, major and minor, who get full, richly developed scenes with great dialogue. Consider when Sam goes to visit his ex-wife Bunny (Frances McDormand). There was no need for that scene to be as long as it was, but Frances McDormand plays Bunny with a squirrely yet sad energy. Just from that scene we get a firm idea of what Sam and Bunny’s relationship was like and what probably led to their breakup. Again, Sayles could have easily cut this scene, but he didn’t because he knew that the crime was only as interesting as the rabbit holes through time and space that it leads Sam and us through.

Sayles also accurately depicts the vast diversity of people who live there including Black, Latino and Native American people. One of my favorite scenes that has no business in a conventional film (other than the one with Bunny) is the one that takes place at Pilar’s (Sam’s old flame) classroom. It is a PTA conference about the Mexican-American War. Some of the White parents have taken issue with how Pilar teaches this very important piece of Texas history, one that is central to the Texas identity. The easy answer for why this scene is here is that it establishes Pilar’s character (it is basically our introduction to her), but Sayles wasn’t content with simple exposition. Rather, he uses that scene to show the tension between the White and non-White people and how their conflict has become coded in civility. He also uses it to illustrate the theme of the burden of the past and how out of hand it can get the further removed we are from it.

Perhaps the most literary yet also the most effective technique is the purpose of the main characters in two of the most prominent narratives. I am speaking of Chris Cooper’s Sam and Kris Kristofferson’s Charlie Wade. Interestingly, though the film focuses on these two characters the most, they are technically not as complex as even some of the side characters. Chris Cooper plays Sam as a bit of a malcontent who has spent all of his life hearing about his father Buddy’s legacy and his positive impact on the town. His reluctance to be associated with his father is made all the more difficult as we find that Buddy’s legacy and the enveloping mystery are inextricably intertwined. Kris Kristofferson’s Charlie is a racist, abusive megalomaniac whose sole purpose in life seems to be waving his power over the disenfranchised. He would probably strike some viewers as cartoonish, but we also have to consider that we learn about Charlie through other people’s (hateful) recollections of him, so it is not surprising he would come off this way.

Both actors are brilliant. Kristofferson stands out even among such an amazing cast as his overly evil yet believable villain. However, it is Cooper I remember even though he actually underplays compared to nearly everyone else. It is through his crinkled, weary face that we see the weight of history, both personal and general, that we feel the impact of this work. This film could have been a hollow exercise in style and screenwriting but through Sayles’ direction and editing and Cooper’s and all the other actors’ performances, it becomes a Shakespearean tragedy and sweeping epic, though this town and county couldn’t be more than a few square miles. I wish more modern movies were as ambitious in this specific scope. Plenty of films are ambitious visually but lacking narratively. If there were a film equivalent to the elusive Great American Novel, Lone Star would be pretty damn close in my opinion.

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