Lone Star—Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Ron Canada (1996; Dir: John Sayles)
The central character is Rio County sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) in modern-day Texas. Sam is grappling with personal and professional (but mostly personal) issues relating to his own legendary-but-now-deceased sheriff father Buddy Deeds (played as a young man in flashbacks by Matthew McConaughey) and Charlie Wade, Buddy’s brutal and corrupt but effective predecessor (Kris Kristofferson) as sheriff. However, there are also multigenerational issues involving Latinos and blacks, as well as the area’s changing demographics. These are all played out against a background of finding and identifying a body in the desert, dead for decades and reduced to bones. It’s a rich canvas, focusing on several families with different backgrounds and weaving them together with the central story. The quiet use of the changing ethnic mix of Texas, with the conflicts between generations, is never heavy-handed and seldom predictable.
In addition to dealing with the heritage of the western mythos in the person of his father (who was apparently more successful as a lawman than as a father), Sam copes with his own ethical and relationship dilemmas. He’s divorced and becomes interested in renewing a relationship with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), his Latina high school girl friend. Pilar, now a high school history teacher, has some issues with her own mother Mercedes, a widow who runs a successful Mexican restaurant. Fort McKenzie, the local army base, is slated to be closed. The new camp commander, Col. Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), is a hard-line military type trying keep his command in shape while juggling his feelings about his estranged father Otis (Ron Canada) and his own adolescent son who’s chafing under his military father’s restrictions. Otis runs Big O’s, the only bar in the county primarily for blacks.
While Sam investigates past sheriffs Buddy and Charlie and digs up old secrets, he tries to figure out if he wants to run for sheriff again when the much more numerous Latinos get political power in the next election. Buddy could be as controlling as Charlie—it was part of the job description for a sheriff in border country—but was he as corrupt? Some of the investigation involves Pilar’s family, too, and the Paynes. Sam and Pilar hit it off as well as they did when they were teenagers. Eventually he finds the truth about the body and some about his father, as well.
The cast is surprisingly good, especially the understated Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Ron Canada and Joe Morton. Even Matthew McConaughey is good in this (albeit with little actual screen time), which must mean that the story and director are unusually excellent. The smaller characters, like Clifton James who plays a former Wade deputy who’s now the town’s mayor, are quite good, too. Frances McDormand has a very good cameo as Sam’s ex-wife, who’s “wound a little too tight.” There’s a deliberate pace to the development and a focus on relationships, with a little action interspersed. In the occasional flashback, the camera pans seamlessly from the present to the past to start the flashback, or from the past to the present at the end in an interesting technique.
Director John Sayles is known much more for easterns than for westerns, but he created a gem here. This was not widely seen on its release in theaters—it was shown mostly in art houses. But it’s very good. It’s rated R, apparently for some language, violence and even some sexual references. This is perhaps one of the three best westerns set in modern times, along with Bad Day at Black Rock and No Country for Old Men. [But see also Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Giant, which many don’t put into the category of westerns.]