Lone Star (1996)

Lone-Star-PenaThis 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”

Lone-StarThe 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 bring 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 prob;lems 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 twon.

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 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

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Film Noir, John Sayles, Noir on Tuesday, Scene of the crime, Texas, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Lone Star (1996)

  1. Isn’t it interesting, Sergio, how these hidden gems really can stay hidden at times? I sometimes wonder what it is about even a fine film that keeps it ‘under wraps.’ Thank you for the excellent review and for the reminder of this one.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    A really wonderful piece for John Sayles’ great, thoroughly underappreciated, LONE STAR, Sergio. Makes me miss Elizabeth Peña all the more. Well done.

    • Thanks Mike, very kind. I do hope this makes it to HD one day and finds a new audince, though i believe it was a modest success in its day. She was a lovely actress, so sorry to see her go.

  3. tracybham says:

    I like this film very much too. I had forgotten how many good actors are in it, including Elizabeth Pena. I am going to have to watch this again soon.

    The movie I really remember her from is Rush Hour. It is nowhere as good a movie, but I do like Jackie Chan, and Pena has a fun role in it. Fun for me anyway.

    • I almost forgot she was in it that – playing a much tougher character as I recall. Probably not really true, but I always thought she could most anything. She apparently had a recurring role in the new series Matador, which I have not seen yet.

  4. Todd Mason says:

    Thanks, Sergio…coming on the heels of Jan Hooks’s similarly ridiculously early death, Elizabeth Peña’s got wrapped up in my own personal funk…I certainly recall her well (to say the least) from the likes of LA BAMBA, SHANNON’S DEAL (did that play in the UK? Criminally cut down in its run, anyway, and one of the best series of its time, heralding the renaissance in US television), and even in the atrocious likes of JACOB’S LADDER (she and Tim Robbins did what they could with it). Hell, she elevated I MARRIED DORA, though the FTW series ending helped there, too…). And Sayles remains consistently interesting, even if rarely as good in every way as with LONE STAR.

    • Thanks chum – used to love Shannon’s Deal, which did make it to a fairly late-night slot here as I recall, though oddly I wasn’t as keen when they started steering a romance between her and Jamey Sheridan’s characters. Never seen Dora though – thanks. I remember Hooks from 3rd Rock from the Sun mostly.

  5. Colin says:

    This film and Jacob’s Ladder immediately popped into my head the other day when I read of Pena’s passing.
    A really good thriller, and a fine movie all round, I agree that it’s a little shocking how few people have seen it. Nicely written up.

    • Thanks Colin – must admit, while I am a big fan of the ‘Incident at Owl Creek Bridge’ type of story I haven;t re-watched Jacob’s Ladder since it opened at the cinema, which did seem to be yet another in a very long catalogue of ‘death is good for you’ screenplays written by Bruce Joel Rubin, his other such titles including Ghost, My Life, Brainstorm, Deep Impact etc etc. Must watch Jacob again, thanks.

      • Colin says:

        I haven’t seen the movie in years myself, but I remember Pena’s role quite vividly. I did prefer her in Lone Star though.

        • I actually forgot she was in it! But literally only saw it at the cinema in, what, 1990? Lone Star I love to bits – great mystery, great modern western, great love story. Admittedly some of the scenes with Pena in school feel a bit too much like a history lesson, but it’s pretty small price to pay!

          • Colin says:

            No arguments from me. I very much enjoy modern westerns – no surprise there I suppose – and think they provide a setting that frequently works well for mysteries.

          • Have you ever watched Justified, from the Elmore Leonard stories? I know you’re not really a TV sort of person but I think you’d be impressed. Same goes for Person of Interest, which I have suddenly become a big fan of after watching back-back episodes on a long haul flight.

          • Colin says:

            No, I haven’t seen Justified but that’s more as a result of a lack of opportunity than a lack of interest. I’ve heard good things about it though.

          • I did use to have season one lying around somewhere – may be in the loft. Shall check it out!

        • Todd Mason says:

          Nope, other than for Peña’s and to a lesser extent Robbins’s performances, there is no reason to revisit JACOB’S LADDER, which is not nearly comparable to the Bierce story however pointlessly derivative of “Owl Creek” it is, unless you really need to again see glycerin-mouthed Culkin as the child-molester’s wet-dream of a guide to heaven. Genuinely atrocious film. One of the relatively few films I’m actually angry I wasted the time to see, again with the insufficient melioration of giving Peña a chance to vamp.

  6. I’ve obviously missed out on something special here, I must put this on my list, it sounds terrific. What a cast – and I know John Sayles as a great writer/director. Thanks Sergio.

  7. davidsimmons6 says:

    You’ve sold me. It’s now #1 on my Netflix queue.

  8. Jeff Cordell says:

    John Sayles is one of those filmmakers that folks with a some smarts know about and appreciate. “Brother from Another Planet”, “Matewan” (one of my favorites), “Piranha”(writer), “Eight Men Out” and “Amigo”. His movies feel more like novels. they don’t provide simple answers and are strong in character development.

  9. Sergio, I don’t know who Elizabeth Peña was but I’ll take your advice and seek out this film. I’m also curious to see Frances McDormand in her cameo. Thanks for the review.

  10. Yvette says:

    This is a wonderful film, Sergio. I’m so glad you’ve seen it and loved it as much as I do. I too am always surprised that so few people are familiar with it. Elizabeth Pena should have become a major star off this one. Not to mention, the brilliant Chris Cooper, who is a most underrated actor.
    I was saddened to read of Pena’s passing at such a young age. I wonder if it was the dreaded big C that got her. Too damn young. Such a beauty. Such a fine actress.

    I had meant to write about this one but you beat me to the punch and I’ll bow down to your greater skills at reviewing this sort of film. Suffice to say, we both love it and recommend it.

    • You should definitely write about it Yvette – nobody could ever mistake one for the ither 🙂 No idea how she died but ‘bnatural causes’ at 55 has to make you sad.

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    This is a superb film. A gem. Acting, direction and script are all absolutely brilliant. It hooks one right from the beginning and is absorbing till the end.
    It is much, much more than a simple murder mystery. It deals subtly with various complex issues such as race relations, relations between parents and children, political and police corruption, justice, love and basic human nature.
    Though more than 2 hours long, not a single shot is wasted. Every incident contributes to the story.
    However, the final revelation may seem sensationalist since it involves the taboo subject of incest.

    • So glad you are also a fan Santosh – it’s such a superb film and it seems amazing to me that it isn’t better-known. Apparently it is now reported that Elizabeth Peña does at least in part complications due to alcohol abuse – whatever the case, 55 is too you and she is just the anchor for this great movie – thanks for the great feedback Santosh.

  12. Pingback: Lone Star (1996) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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