While the boom in independent movies during the 1990s was dominated by edgy crime thrillers exploding with violence and dark humor, director John Sayles stuck with same types of intimate, contemplative dramas that he had already been making to acclaim for a decade. Even though Sayles' output lacked the fashionable quirks of Tarantino, Soderbergh and Smith, at least three of his movies during their ascent deserve to be on any list of the best indies from that golden age: Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Innish, and his sprawling meditation on memory, perspective and self-definition, Lone Star.
Chris Cooper stars as Sam Deeds, a man who has returned home to the border town of Frontera, Texas, to take on the mantle of Sheriff, a position his late father Buddy held for 30 years. At-odds with his father since a teenager, Sam finds daily reminders of Buddy Deeds' legendary status hewn into the touchy racial politics of Rio County, and when the decades-old corpse of Buddy's predecessor is discovered in the desert, Sam's investigation requires delving into a thorny local mythology that is inextricably entwined with his own family dysfunctions.
Sayles employs a straightforward and seemingly effortless style in Lone Star; although some mistake his low-key approach as pedestrian, it works brilliantly in the service of his masterfully casual storytelling. Unlike almost any other director of his era, Sayles unwinds complex, thematically rich narratives populated by imperfect and atypical characters without ever calling attention to his craft through sensationalist aesthetics or dramatics. His stories have a way of unfolding, one layer at a time, in front of his largely passive camera, creating a surprising cumulative effect as each natural and quiet revelation exposes new patterns and implications. the cast of Lone Star uniformly delivers the kind of perfectly subtle performances that rarely get the attention they deserve. Cooper and Elizabeth Peña, as Sam's now-widowed childhood sweetheart, touchingly play their dramas on the inside; even the typically more extroverted Matthew McConaughey (Buddy Deeds) and Kris Kristofferson sublimate the power of their personalities for Sayles' focus on the empty spaces that weigh heavily between implied words and actions.
The only mark against Lone Star is that, as Sayles' ambitiously extends its scope to explore his themes across a wider societal canvas, the subplots he devises to work in parallel with the intimate mystery at its core are nowhere near as complex or engaging. Joe Morton, Ron Canada and Eddie Robinson combine for another tale of multi-generationally botched misunderstandings and mis-expectations, but it's a prosaic formulation and reiterates rather than reverberates with the conflicts in the main story. Míriam Colón is fantastic as Peña's stoic immigrant mother, but is given a rather obvious sidebar that only pads the already generous running time; Chandra Wilson's subplot as a struggling Army private culminates in a thoughtful scene, but one maybe better explored in its own film. Most notably, Frances McDormand delivers Lone Star's showiest display; fragile and manic in a single scene, it's a fun role, but hardly crucial beyond the actress displaying some additional range in the same year as her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo. Unfortunately, each of these distractions from the central narrative saps energy from the emotional charge of Sam Deeds' personal journey, leaving its satisfying and provocative ruminations just a little less powerful than they should've been.
Lone Star was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Josh Haysom, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Quirky. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #781 (91%, out of 8228 movies) and 4th highest among the 11 John Sayles movies that he's seen. On my chart, Lone Star ranked at #534/3729 (86%), where it's 2nd out of five John Sayles movies.