[Deep Focus]
Directed, written, and edited by John Sayles
Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh
Starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson,
Joe Morton, Ron Canada, and Matthew McConaughey
U.S.A., 1996


I feel kind of bad about not being a huge fan of this piece of very skillful filmmaking. This is the type of movie that discriminating viewers point to and say, 'See? Here's what movies can be like, if you take care with them and let their characters breathe.' And they're right. It's a fine and sensitive creation that's deeply concerned with our cultural identity, with what it means to be American where America matters—near the Mexican border. Lone Star is a film I respect a lot from a director whom I admire greatly. I just want to like it a little more than I do.

I don't fault it for any lack of intelligence. Lone Star is perceptive and fiercely investigatory. As usual, Sayles' preoccupation is people and they way we live together and work with one another. In Lone Star, he takes a brand of American sociological history as his subject. The movie is set in a Texas border town, and not just for atmospherics. Gringos, blacks, and Mexican immigrants have made a sort of truce in this Mexican-American landscape, and Sayles is interested in learning what holds the community together, and what divisive forces persist.

Protagonist Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), part sheriff and part accidental historian, gets drawn into the history of Frontera, Texas, and its people when he discovers a skeleton in the desert outside of town. He finds a sheriff's badge near the bones and becomes convinced that he's found the final resting place of onetime Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a legendarily ill-tempered sheriff who vanished from town shortly after a confrontation with Sam's father (Matthew McConaughey), who was the sheriff's deputy at the time.

Racism is personified in the ugly spectre of Charley Wade, and Kristofferson delivers a fine, convincing performance in the role. Everyone else is nearly as good. Elizabeth Pena (I'm not sure I'd seen her since Jacob's Ladder) is refreshingly naturalistic as Sam's high school sweetheart, Pilar Cruz, and Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill) is a commanding presence in his brief moments on screen. Cooper, shooting his third movie with Sayles, is something else entirely. I'm not sure what exactly he brings to this story, but for me, his performance has a sidling weirdness that throws the whole picture just a little out of whack. It's almost like he's visiting from Twin Peaks. (Even Fargo's Frances McDormand shows up, kitchen-sink style, in a cameo.)

But what gives me most pause about Lone Star is Sayles' very mannered approach to storytelling. Flashback sequences are skillfully woven into the narrative, revealing character and motivation, but it's awfully calculated. The camera, for instance, begins to track around the set as soon as one of the characters sets the right reflective tone, and it soon reveals the characters and situations of the past playing out fluidly in the same cinemaspace that once depicted the present day. I like the effect, but it's a fluorish that draws attention to itself. The second or third time Sayles used it, I could already almost hear the actors and crew stumbling around just outside the frame, moving props and performers out of the way and getting the lights into place as the camera swung to and fro. It's a shorthand for the ways that the events of the past directly influence the actions of the present, but it's also a distraction.

More troublesome for me were the film's various denouements, where a whole string of loose ends are resolved in rapid succession. Critics have compared the narrative structure here to that of a novel, but a novel has a much larger canvas to fill in -- film directors can't often allow their stories to unfold at a novel's pace. And in the last reel, I felt the film jerking this way and that, struggling at all costs to bring some conciliation to its disparate characters and plot elements. I do give a damn what happens to these people, and I care what Sayles thinks of them. But he really needed several more hours to tell this story properly. If he ever gets the go-ahead to make a TV miniseries that's as sensitive and compelling as Lone Star, I'll be glued to my set all week.

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer