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Lone Star is a sweeping, epic sort of film, which is comfortable enough in its own skin to look like a western, talk like a mystery, work the party like a family drama, and dress you down in the back room like a social commentary…all without raising its voice or breaking its easy, Texas amble. A mystery unfurled over a span of decades, Lone Star is a movie that will especially resonate with fans of True Detective, which also uses long timeframes to build suspense and tell its story.
At its heart, Lone Star is a tale of three sheriffs: one dead, one missing, and one struggling with a mystery left to him by the other two. As a brilliant architect of story, John Sayles builds us an elegant, simple piece, in which upwards of 50 distinct characters live…and I do mean live. The film is built on very familiar western foundations—sweeping deserts and big sky, dry brush, and constant heat—but all the six gun and swagger happen in the late 1950s.
And like so many of Sayles’ films—which happen in places of transition—Lone Star also takes place on a border. This time it’s a little unassuming Texas border town named Frontera. There, Sayles shows us history lurking in lots of places: between the pages of municipal record books, buried alongside out-of-the-way roads, and slowly riding its way out of the mouths of old timers on late-night whiskey fumes. In Lone Star, almost all of these histories are thick with the story of the late, great Sheriff Buddy Deeds (played with a smooth cool by a young Matthew McConaughey). And the only thing in Frontera that casts a longer shadow than the myth of Buddy Deeds is the brutal career of his predecessor, the corrupt, inexplicably vanished Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson at his steely-eyed best).
Sayles builds upwards, with the ground floor composed of protection rackets, payoffs, and police corruption. All the elements of western noir, if you will. And then finally, at the top of the stairs, we find Sayles’ finesse with the tensions, passions, and secrets of an entire town’s 40-year history, including all its dirty laundry.
Lone Star is not your average whodunit: The question from the start is not really who died, or who probably killed them; the real question is why it has been covered up for 40 years. And the answer, which Sayles teases out through a series of seamless flashbacks and three-time-frame-tiered storytelling, is that people are attached to their myths. Sam, played by Chris Cooper, is driven not only by his need to find the truth about Charlie Wade’s murder, but his desire to try and take apart his father’s legend…or even just chip the corner off it.
For the audience, the ride is easy and comfortable, and one that, because of Sayles’ sense for telling detective stories, leaves your wits feeling sharper at the end than they did at the beginning. And with all its subplots’ twists and turns, you’ll probably want to make time to go through it twice.