A great movie is a rare find among the escapist cheese balls of summer. Lone Star is 134 minutes long, but writer and director John Sayles — whose no-bull credo has held from 1980’s Return of the Secaucus 7 to last year’s The Secret of Roan Inish — makes every hotblooded and hypootic minute count. The place is the border town of Frontera, Texas. The time is 1957, when lawman Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey, headed for star status in the upcoming A Time to Kill) becomes Frontera’s hero by forcing out the brutal, bigoted Sheriff Charley Wade (a never-better Kris Kristofferson) and taking his job. The time is also the present, when Buddy’s son, Sam (Chris Cooper), is sheriff. After a skeleton is discovered on an Army rifle range, along with Charley’s rusted badge, Sam investigates a case that might prove his late father (idolized by all but Sam) to be a murderer.
Sayles uses the whodunit plot to merge past and present, and to expose Frontera’s social, racial and political hypocrisies. It sounds highfalutin, but Sayles’ knack for edgy humor and ardent sexuality grounds the story in humanism. More than 50 characters people this multicultural tale of a town where the shift of power from Mexicans to Anglos is shifting again.
Hiring onto both sides are the blacks, represented by bar owner Otis Payne (the remarkable Ron Canada), whose estranged son, Delmore (Joe Morton), returns home to command the Army base. This world of children haunted by parents includes Pilar (Elirabeth Pena), a widowed schoolteacher and Sam’s childhood love until her mother, Mercedes (a superb Miriam Colon), broke them up.
The performances are uncommonly fine, from veteran Clifton James as a former deputy turned mayor to Fargo‘s award-worthy Frances McDormand in a comic and wrenching cameo as Sam’s unstable ex-wife. All are touched by the murder on that sultry night 40 years ago.
None more than Sam and Pilar. Cooper and Pena bring a tender poignancy to these aging lovers. One night in an empty restaurant, beautifully lit by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), they slow-dance to a jukebox tune and glide out of frame and into their youth. Flashbacks to the teenage Pilar (Vanessa Martinez) and Sam (Tay Strathairn, the handsome son of Sayles regular David Strathairn) link the lovers to their past, not to provide an escape hatch but to acknowledge what was and move on. Lone Star is a triumph for Sayles, who fuses the sweep of City of Hope and the intimacy of Passion Fish into a mystery of potent surprise, ready wit and rough-hewed grace. Lone Star isn’t built to ride trends. It’s built to last.