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Old Western Meets The New Frontier

Alan Pappe

Back and Frontera: Chris Cooper plays a Texas lawman searching for some hard truths about his past in John Sayles' "Lone Star."

There's more than one border to cross in John Sayles' 'Lone Star'

By Richard von Busack

OUT IN THE Texas desert, two men discover the skull and sheriff's badge of a man killed decades before. Pretty much everyone in the town of Frontera recognizes the skull's evil smirk as the same one Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), sheriff of Rio County, wore in life right until he disappeared sometime back in the 1950s with $10,000 in city funds.

They also know that just before Wade disappeared, he was foolhardy enough to pick a fight with Buddy Deeds, later sheriff himself. That Deeds apparently shot Wade is but one of the reasons he's revered. This instance of Western justice is approved of by those few old enough to remember it.

The only one who doesn't consider the matter over and done with is the new sheriff, Deeds' tense, brooding son, Sam (Chris Cooper), a lesser man than his dear dead daddy in everyone's estimation: "All hat and no cattle" is the way the mayor (Clifton James) puts it. To prove himself, Sam Deeds decides to reopen the case.

He finds that the crime crosses a lot of borders, not just between Texas and Mexico, but between whites and Mexicans, between black and white. Lone Star is a Western where one character has to explain that there isn't a border line between good people and bad people. The town's name "Frontera" (border) indicates the kind of shadow land Sam inhabits throughout the film.

It takes one kind of intelligence to work the seemingly ancient themes of the Western at this late date--to keep those dogies moving as, say, Walter Hill does (or to grill them to a turn, as Robert Rodriguez did in El Mariachi and Desperado). It takes another kind of intelligence to completely subvert those ideals, and John Sayles, who directed and wrote Lone Star, is just about the smartest man in the American movie business.

Lone Star may be essentially a tale of a good sheriff and the school-marm he loves, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), but the story Sam Deeds must unearth overturns the core beliefs of the West, especially that law laid down at the end of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When there's a conflict between the truth and the legend, print the legend."

WHEN THE mainstream cinema gave us Field of Dreams, Sayles gave us the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out. Similarly, Lone Star ends up questioning who was on the right side at the Alamo, asking about the somewhat imaginary difference between Mexico and the southwestern United States and mulling over today's Texas: not the last place for free-range humans but actually a garden where nothing grows unless the government waters it first.

There are nearly a dozen main characters in Lone Star. For the first time since he started on the tricky proposition of his multicharacter dramas--Eight Men Out and City of Hope--Sayles does justice to almost all of his players. He needs that many to cover all the questions he raises; to name but a few: interracial marriage, prison-building for profit, the problems of career Army officers in an age of downsizing and all of the various backs that need scratching in a small town.

Ultimately Lone Star shows off Sayles' usual problem of being a writer first and a director second. He shies away from visual narrative; when he tells a story, it's usually just that: literally a character telling a story. Still, this latest in a string of outstandingly intelligent, human-scale movies is one of Sayles' best, and one of the highlights of the year.

Especially worth noting is Kristofferson's comeback performance in a refreshing burst of old-movie villainy, making the word "mordita" sound like the vilest obscenity. There is also a chilling little turn when we meet Deeds' ex-wife (Frances McDormand), a woman who takes her football a little too seriously. Chris Cooper, in the lead, has a face that's a battleground of bravery and disgust. He's an old-fashioned hero in a modern milieu. This is a Western in praise of the civilized virtues, a discourse elevated without the help of the soap-box.

Lone Star (R; 135 min.), directed and written by John Sayles, photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña and Kris Kristofferson.

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

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