"Do birds flying south know the lines they cross?"
I first remember seeing Chris Cooper as the uptight Marine in American Beauty (1999). Although that film left me with a bad taste in my mouth, I couldn't forget his role. Then, when I saw him in one of the most important films in recent memory, Adaptation (2002), I understood why that memory lingered. This guy is a genius. So it didn't surprise me much to find that his role in Lone Star (1996) was a fetching piece of brilliance in an overlooked film; a film which is one of the most moving things I've seen on my TV since we fully exhausted season one of the Deadwood series.
The film is by John Sayles and I have to admit that I'd never really had that name register in my head before now. I'm sure I've seen at least a couple of his ten or so efforts, but I never had a clue how good this guy is. That's the way it usually is with geniuses, however. You never really notice them until it's too late to thank them. Now, however, I have City of Hope, Passion Fish, Men with Guns, as well as The Secret of Roan Inish firmly established in my NetFlix queue. I just hope by the time they arrive, I remember why I put them there.
The film this is most often compared to by lame-ass movie reviewers (not unlike myself) is Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, based on the book by Larry McMurtry. I guess I can see the reason folks say that, but I didn't find it apt at all. Sure, they're both set in small Texas towns and they both involve small-town politics and betrayal. But The Last Picture Show was a sad affair while Lone Star breathes with life-affirming actions and positive will. In The Last Picture Show, you mourn for the loss of history and the forlorn state of the souls left to make it. In Lone Star, you feel that somehow the historic problems of race relations, familial squabbles, and the nation itself will heal, just like the political squabblings of the border town of Frontera, Texas, as well as the romance between the two protagonists. The Last Picture Show is about endings. Lone Star is about a way to find a new beginning.
When he was discussing his film City of Hope (1991) Sayles said that he was looking to create a work full of knots that would ultimately tie together and connect in intriguing ways. I haven't seen that one yet, but it would be hard to imagine a better example of that very mission statement than this film.
Cooper plays Sheriff Sam Deeds, the son of a famous sheriff of the little border town where they are about to name a building after his dad, legendary sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey in flashbacks). We learn that Buddy became the sheriff after the totally corrupt Sheriff Charlie Wade (played deliciously villainously by Kris Kristofferson) went missing. When Wade's remains are found in the desert outside of town, Sam is suddenly given the chore of solving a decades-old murder mystery.
Pilar Cruz (played by the somewhat odd-looking but still amazingly attractive Elizabeth Peña) plays Sam's old flame. She's a schoolteacher with an overbearing mother (played by Miriam Colon) who came to America illegally but who now calls Border Patrol whenever she sees anyone else trying to do the same.
The element of the film that is most often glossed over in most reviews, and which I found at least as moving as any other facet, is the relationship of Big O (Otis Payne, played by Ron Canada) to his estranged son Delmore (played by Joe Morton). One could take the easy road and say that Sayles was fashioning a statement about the current rash of fatherlessness in America. But that would be to sell this element of the story way short. The scenes with the grandson visiting Big O's bar and complaining about a man they both love with a fierce passion is perhaps the lynchpin to the entire film. This provides the glimpse of hope for redemption, and by the time the film is over every one of the various story lines will have found this redemption in one form or another.
Sam is intent on pinning the forty year old murder on his father. What we learn later is that he is really trying to pin a much more personal and life-changing crime on his old man. One that he actually did commit. When this comes full circle at the end, I can't remember a better ending to a film. It's damn near Shakespeare.