Lone Star (1996)

Directed by John Sayles


Lone Star is a murder mystery that slips in a commentary on modern day race-relations until the murder mystery falls flat, and every scene hits you over the head with a cultural commentary that feels more ‘preaching to the choir’ than fresh and insightful.

It’s similar to the 2005 Oscar-winning Crash, another ensemble film in which the storylines of each and every character intersect in somewhat improbable ways.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) is another film that covers intersecting storylines, but he acknowledges and embraces the absurdity and unlikeliness of these coincidences.

Lone Star takes place in a small Texas town that partially helps justify these improbably intersecting storylines.  Our main character is Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) who has only recently returned to this small town after years away.  The only reason Sam Deeds, a former jailer, is sheriff is because of the legend of his father, Sheriff Buddy Deeds.  Sam is embraced by the city because of his father and nothing else, but Sam has trouble seeing his late father the way everyone else does.

When a skull turns up on a shooting range with a Sheriff’s badge, Sam begins an investigation that reaches into the town’s history and seems to tie together the storylines of a number of characters of different backgrounds.

These other characters include businesswoman Mercedes Cruz, a hispanic woman who proudly insists that all of her employees are properly documented and who somewhat eagerly reports illegal immigrants to the authorities despite, we later learn, the fact that she herself crossed the border illegally.

There is Mayor Hollis, Buddy’s former deputy who tells Sam some of the stories of his father, helping make him feel larger than life.  Sam never seems quite sure what to make of these stories as the towns’ love for his father feels too good to be true.  Sam doesn’t agree with the efforts of Crus and Hollis to set up a statue in Buddy’s honor, considering it a waste of money.

Oh, and Sam was once in love with Mercedes’ daughter, Pilar, but their relationship was discouraged by each teenager’s parents, almost in a Romeo & Juliet way.  Pilar remains in town, and when she and Sam finally get back together, he confesses that the real reason he returned to town was to be with her.

Who else… there’s Colonel Delmore Payne, the recently appointed commander of the local U.S. Army base which is in the process of being shut down.  Delmore’s father is Otis Payne, a local nightclub owner, but the two were never close.  Otis’ bar is where many of the soldiers hangout, and one night there is a shooting which doesn’t have too much of a consequence except for a few stern talking-to’s given to one of the female soldiers who was there.

Anyways, the narrative jumps between these characters, and in a wonderful use of staging, we will enter their memories as they recall specific moments in time.  A character will begin to ruminate, and the camera will pan by them and into the flashback they’re talking about.  It’s cute the first time, certainly impressive, but the effect starts to feel a little unnecessary with each subsequent flashback.

The point is that there was a corrupt Sheriff named Charlie Wade who preceded Buddy, and everyone hated Wade.  He was a bad, bad man, and Sam’s theory is that the skull he has found belongs to Wade who was presumed to have skipped town with $10,000 in county funds some years ago.

Through the flashbacks we see how all of these characters are connected, and we see just how hated Wade was.  In one of these flashbacks, Wade kills a man, Eladio, who is known to help immigrants cross the border illegally.  Later we learn that Eladio was Mercedes’ husband and Pilar’s father.

In the final flashback we see that Buddy didn’t kill Wade, as Sam believed, but he was there when it happened and helped bury the body.  This occurred in Otis’ bar when Wade was about to shoot him as his back was turned but was instead shot by Hollis himself.  Buddy then gave the $10,000 presumed to have been stolen by Wade to Eladio who… dun dun dun, was his mistress.

Sam chooses not to prosecute them for the decades old murder, and this kind of feels like the end of Murder on the Orient Express.

At this point the entire thing feels a little much.  While it’s a surprise that Hollis killed Wade, it’s not a meaningful surprise.  Everyone is connected by the death of this angry old man, and blah blah blah, okay.  There is a lot of subtext at play, but it’s pretty heavy-handed.  Every character has some kind of father issue, and the story is about generations as well as cultural differences in a small border town.  In that way it’s like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.

That’s all fine and good, but none of it feels well-executed.  It’s just there, a lot of good ideas that don’t quite add up to a whole.  Except, well then you get to the end in which Sam reveals to lover Pilar that they are actually half-siblings since her father is Buddy.  And yeah, they totally slept together, so boom, it’s a strange note to end on, but it’s pretty great, if only because it came to me as a complete shock, a hilarious shock.

So Lone Star tries to do a lot, and I think you’ve got to give it credit for its ambition.  It’s a murder mystery that tries to be so much more, but there’s nothing intriguing about the murder mystery.  It’s not about who the victim is, because it’s clearly Wade, and it’s not so much about who murdered him because every single character seems to have a good reason to want him dead.  It’s more about the pain, I suppose, that bonds us and that goes beyond all the dividing lines we draw between ourselves, most apparent through skin color.

At the same time, this felt like a lot for one story to handle, and so much of it just feels so cheesy.  You can only watch so many heartfelt speeches and so many improbably intersecting storylines without rolling your eyes.  Maybe that’s just me.  This is a story about murder, deception, even incest and it somehow feels so melodramatic.  Maybe it’s all the flashbacks or maybe its just that Charlie Wade felt too cartoonish to be believable, like he’s a big bad wolf, and our ensemble cast is all the trembling pigs unsure how to fight back.

Up Next: Magnolia (1999), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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