Oedipus Tex

Nothing is what it seems in John Sayles' border-town tragedy, Lone Star

A shooting, a base closing, a school controversy, an interracial romance, a 40-year-old murder. These are among the numerous prosaic events that, when taken alone, don't amount to much, but put together constitute the elements of life in a dying border town. Yet these dull, dreary distractions that seem to be of only passing significance become the ties that draw humans to one another in Lone Star, John Sayles' sweeping panorama of a lazy Texas town, and the best, most exciting American film this year.

Lone Star contains no splashy action scenes, no high-speed chases, or, as its director points out, the basic requirements of a traditional thriller. Its putative hero, the conflicted sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), is never in any physical danger. But this fact doesn't suggest a lack of tension or drama. Instead, Lone Star transcends common expectations about the nature of harm; real violence manifests itself as emotional turmoil.

Sayles examines the complex social, political, and familial histories in Lone Star--of its characters, its setting, even America itself--critically yet with compassion. Sam Deeds dwells in the dim shadow of his father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey), the mythic ex-sheriff whose memory refuses to die in the minds of everyone in town. Buddy was the sort of corrupt, beloved politico whose stern sense of morality and personal code of justice has been the irritant dominating Sam's life and, whether or not he cares to admit it, the singular force shaping Sam's personality. When the skeletal remains of Buddy's predecessor, the venal, despised Sheriff Wade (Kris Kristofferson), are uncovered in the desert, Sam investigates the crime with a mission: to prove--to himself and the town--that Buddy wasn't the saint he has been made out to be, but a cold-blooded murderer. What's unclear to Sam--but which the audience sees as inevitable--is just how great the price of knowledge will prove to be. Lone Star isn't Agatha Christie; it's Oedipus Rex distilled down to its basic components as a murder mystery.

If the narrative began and ended here, Lone Star could probably stand on its own as an art-house drama, a coming-of-age parable deferred by years of post-adolescent wandering. But like the plots to Deliverance and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sam's story is just one point of departure for Sayles' more ambitious undertaking: a wholesale purging of the demons of all fathers, from biological to Founding, that are visited upon all sons. It's about the daily tyrannies, both petty and large, external and self-imposed, that shape our personalities and our society.

The use of the mystery at Lone Star's center enables Sayles to construct a screenplay with jigsaw-puzzle precision, where the whole picture can only be seen at the end, but the journey deciphering the pieces and putting them in context is the important thing. Sayles peels away the layers of his thesis with uncommon skill, painting a consummate portrait of the town of Frontera, past and present, in images and words. His camera moves from flashback to present-day with a fluid visual elegance, never drawing bright lines between the scenes, but combining them in single shots. This technique gives all the events an immediacy, and--especially in the case of Sheriff Wade's brutal reign of terror--a palpable impact. The dialogue is equally compelling; not a single line seems wasted, and words as simple as "sheriff" take on multiple meanings. (Sam's insecurity leads him to suggest to an old girlfriend, "I'm not a sheriff, I'm a jailer.")

Sayles has a remarkable gift for showing the breadth of the human condition through the vista of parallel stories. In City of Hope, he showed a sprawling day in a nameless Eastern city, where the machinery of politics steamrolled over the lives of residents. The characters were both ignorant victims of the machinery and the cogs driving it. "It was a snapshot--the American city now," Sayles says.

Lone Star, by contrast, is about "the burden of history." Sayles' narrative immerses the audience in the culture of fictional Frontera in Rio County, Texas, in much the way that William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, presented to the reader a fully formed world where the past occupies center stage in its characters' lives, and where personal legacies are inescapable: Sam suffers from the constant presence of his father, while an estranged Army colonel (Joe Morton) resents his own dad's absenteeism; a thriving Mexican-born businesswoman insists that her immigrant employees speak English, while the white PTA resists revisionist teachers giving a "complete" picture of Texas' fight for independence.

This cyclical process suggests a dominating sadness to the lives of these characters, even though in Sayles' vision there are no winners or losers, merely those who refuse to liberate themselves from their pasts by embracing the lessons they teach. George Santayana's classic warning--"those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it"--gains tangible form.

What makes Lone Star such a singularly impressive film, however, is that no single aspect dominates it; it is as perfectly realized as any film I've seen this year. The actors, many of them Sayles veterans, are uniformly superb; even the stiff, erratic Joe Morton gives his best performance to date. Sayles has said that in directing a scene, he asks each actor to assume that his is the central storyline because, to the character he plays, it is. He elicits some great acting that way, because the audience can never predict where the story might go, or who will take on sudden significance.

Still, some actors stand out. Cooper doesn't let the morose pall that hangs over Sam drag down his characterization, but brings an intensity to his investigation. But the best work comes from Elizabeth Pena and Kristofferson. Pena, as the plain-talking teacher, in dealing with more people in a greater variety of situations than any other character, wrestles with innumerable complex issues. Kristofferson appears only in a few short scenes, but the impression he leaves in those scenes has great power.

Sayles' point is that the anecdotal quality of oral history has trivialized the greater message of our collective experience. "Remember the Alamo!" no longer lives as the war cry of a genuine event, but a jingoistic rallying cry. History has been calcified to the extremes; the legend has become separated from the man. Sayles doesn't mope about that, but welcomes it, as long as the legend can still accomplish some legitimate goal. A tragedy isn't tragic when people realize they may try to escape their fate but never can; that's just called growing up.

Lone Star. Castlerock. Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton. Written and directed by John Sayles. Opens June 28.

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