This is one of my favourite films and I am always slightly appalled that more people haven’t heard of it. I was reminded of it again when it was announced a few days ago that the versatile American actress Elizabeth Peña had died at the age of 55. She was always busy, appearing in films as different as The Incredibles (she voiced the character of Mirage) and La Bamba, though it is for her two collaborations with John Sayles that I will always remember her best: the short-lived legal drama Shannon’ Deal (currently AWOL on video), and Lone Star (1996), the ground-breaking historical mystery he wrote, edited and directed.
“John Sayles invites you to return to the scene of the crime”
Sayles took the murder mystery into largely uncharted territory to produce one of the finest films of the 90s, one in which the big concluding twist is both transgressive in terms of standard Hollywood storytelling and resolutely right in its own context. An ambitious exploration of the historical repercussions of the postwar experience of those living on the US-Mexico border, it stars Chris Cooper, Matthew McCoghaney and Kris Ksristofferson as the sheriffs of a small border town over an arc of nearly forty years. The film, a whodunit and a social history, seamlessly dips in and out of the past to explore the impact of the sins of the fathers and the continuing effect of past action on new generations. This is done on a very broad canvas and to a certain extent betrays the author’s didactic intent as we see history reflected through the experiences of generations Americans from Anglo, Chicano and African-American backgrounds. But it is also an engrossing, multi-generational tale of violence, conflict and even redemption, though John Sayles is thankfully a brave filmmaker who eschews easy answers to difficult questions.
Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña): “All my mother does is work. That’s how you get to be Spanish”
The film opens in time-honoured fashion with the discovery of the remains of a long-buried skeleton. This turns out to be the remains of Charlie Wade, who forty years ago was the corrupt and violent sheriff of Rio County. The case is being investigated by Sam Deeds, whose father Buddy had taken over as sheriff when Wade mysteriously disappeared. This brings Sam back into contact with teacher Pilar Cruz, his high school sweetheart. She is now a widowed mother of two but it’s clear that they still have a deep residual affection for each other – their romance was one of the causes for the falling out between Sam and his father as he had opposed their relationship.
Pilar: “Nobody stays in love for twenty-three years”
The film, often using unbroken takes, slips into the past and back again as Sam tries to find out if his father was involved in Wade’s murder and also finds link to Joe Morton’s military officer who has recently moved back into town and who also has a difficult relationship with his father, though his son is anxious to reconnect with the grandfather he never knew. Pilar also has problems with her own mother, who also harbours some deep secrets – despite her own background as an illegal immigrant, she is now thoroughly opposed to the arrival of ‘wetbacks’ in her town.
Sam Deeds: “No telling yet if there’s been a crime, but this country’s seen a fair amount of disagreements over the years”
Sam can’t live up to his father’s reputation, but as he digs more and more he finds that perhaps he really doesn’t want to. At it’s heart this is a story of the detritus and baggage you pick up through your life and what you decide to keep, what you are able to discard and what happens when you try for a second chance. The plausible and sweet rekindling of the relationship between Sam and Pilar, which his father violently broke apart in their youth, is at the heart of the film and Peña’s ability to exude a mixture of warmth and world-weariness is to me what always glued this film together. Lone Star is incisively written with reams of quotable dialogue, has a very smart plot with a surprising but completely satisfying ending – and boasts a splendid cast of great character actors (and a curious cameo by Frances McDormand too). Seek this beguiling film out and remember what a fine actress Elizabeth Peña was.
DVD Availability: Released back in the days of LaserDiscs (I still have my copy), the same old master used for that edition seems to have also made its way onto DVD. I got the Dutch edition for its extra language options and it is anamorphic at least and perfectly serviceable. Sadly it has no extras but it will have to do until something that better reflects the breadth, complexity and profundity of Sayles’ achievement comes along.
Lone Star (1996)
Director: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Art Direction: Dan Bishop
Music: Mason Daring
Cast: Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña , Matthew McCoghaney, Kris Ksristofferson, Joe Morton, Frances McDormand, Tony Plana, Clifton James, Ron Canada