The Rear-View Mirror: Lone Star (1996)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

What still gets me in John Sayles’ Lone Star is its simple device of showing you that time has passed. Let’s say there is a scene at the edge of a river in Texas, a woman and a man talking, set in the 1960ies, and then the scene comes to an end, and the camera slowly pans to the right, where there is another character in the here and now, the grown-up son of the man from long ago, watching the scene before his mind’s eye. Just by letting the camera move, the story is told in a flashback without a cut. Lone Star is not at all the first movie to do this, but to me, it was a simple but effective way to show that years, even decades, have gone by.

In a subtle way, Lone Star also tells you something new about the people living in that border town. There is that corrupt sheriff, Charlie Wade, played by Kris Kristofferson, but he always struck me as more ridiculous than dangerous, waving his gun around. There is the deputy, Buddy Deeds, played by a young Matthew McConaughey, with a James Dean attitude, but high moral standards. His son, Sam Deeds, played by Chris Cooper, who has to deal with a dead sheriff’s bones.  There are Joe Morton, Chandra Wilson, Ron Canada – I saw them all here for the first time. And I fell for Elizabeth Peña, because it was impossible not to. And if you blink, you might just miss Frances McDormand. There are unexpected alliances among these characters.

There is an effortless way of storytelling because Lone Star refuses to be in any kind of rush. It’s more than two hours long, and if it got made today, scenes would get cut or it would have to be shot faster. It’s not quite a western, not quite a whodunit, and not quite a US-Mexican folk tale, but in some unobtrusive way, it manages to combine elements of all three. John Sayles went on to make the equally brilliant Casa de los babys, about adoption, and to shoot music videos for Bruce Springsteen. He is also a prolific screenwriter. He had his hand in the screenplay for Apollo 13 and has written some of the episodes of The Alienist.

Lone Star is hard to find nowadays, which is surprising because it crops up on some best movies list from time to time. There is that love scene between Sheriff Deeds and Pilar, the Elizabeth Peña character, which makes me cringe every time, but the rest of the movie seems to breathe something of Sam Shepard or Cormac McCarthy. In the more contemplative moments of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Lone Star. There are men and women between the border and the edge of the desert, staying in the shade, waiting for time to pass.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

One thought on “The Rear-View Mirror: Lone Star (1996)

  1. aerothorn Nov 30, 2018 / 18:08

    I’m always surprised by how little this gets talked about in the broader film canon. I love love love it, and have a plan with a friend of mine that we slowly go through all John Sayles films every time she visits.

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