What John Sayles never got about Texas.
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YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FOR A DRUBBING early on in John Sayles’s Lone Star—from the very first scene, to be exact. We watch as two middle-aged Army officers putter around the Texas desert: One of them is taking stock of different species of cactus and fauna; the other scans the earth with a metal detector, searching for old bullets. The men shout past each other, carrying on two separate conversations. Until one of them, in a fit of self-righteous pique, decides to announce to the other the Theme of This Movie:
“You live in a place,” he says. “You should learn something about it. Explore.”
And all this happens before the opening credits have even rolled. The fun—if that’s what you’d call 135 minutes of literal-minded dialogue, overdeliberated symbolism, and Matthew McConaughey sinking beneath the weight of a cowboy hat three times the size of his head—has only just begun.
Within the borders of Texas, to talk trash about Lone Star, which was released to widespread critical acclaim ten years ago this summer, is to speak heresy. But considering the outsized reputation of this movie—it’s now regarded by many as perhaps the greatest Texas movie of the modern era—well, some heresy could be in order. Maybe it’s time to burn the entire church down. It’s not just that Lone Star is so belabored and self-important, especially in the way Sayles uses his characters as mouthpieces to talk about race, immigration, and the question of who gets to write the history books. It’s also that so much of what Sayles proffers as truth, about a “hidden history” of Texas that only the most elder statesman can truly comprehend, is just naive posturing—a myth as empty as the one the director claims to be debunking.
Set in the fictional town of Frontera, located along the Rio Grande, Lone Star follows what happens when those Army officers uncover a human skull and a rusted sheriff’s badge in the dirt. The current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), suspects that these are the remains of Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who terrorized the town in the fifties until he disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Sam also wonders if his now-deceased father, the much-beloved Buddy Deeds (McConaughey), might have been the one who killed Charlie. Against the backdrop of the dedication of the Buddy Deeds Memorial Courthouse, Lone Star shuffles backward and forward in time, introducing us to nearly twenty figures, all of whom somehow connect to this long-forgotten, never-especially-interesting-in-the-first-place mystery.
“Novelistic.” That’s the adjective that gets bandied about most often in praise of Lone Star. (It earned an Oscar nomination for Sayles’ screenplay.) And in many respects, that’s exactly what this movie is: a stolid and heavy object that begs to be regarded with sober reflection. But is that the kind of work most Texans think should represent the rambunctious spirit of their state? Winner of six awards, including best picture, from the Dallas/Fort Worth Film Critics Association and most recently feted at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival with a tenth-anniversary panel discussion, Lone Star has always enjoyed a tremendous home court advantage. And yet, I’ve often wondered if Texans’ embrace of this movie speaks of an inferiority complex: Here’s a movie that we can trot out for our East and West Coast friends, to prove that ours is a dignified place to live, populated by men and women deeply concerned with their own history and with how that history gets relayed to successive generations.
The problem is that Lone Star’s portrait of Texas is lacking in imagination and complexity; it’s an outsider’s vision, steeped in quaint cliché. (The director was born and raised in upstate New York.) In Sayles’ scheme, every last person in the story, even those stationed at the nearby Army base, has a deep-rooted connection to Frontera; the few who have moved away, like Sam Deeds, are inevitably drawn back home. It’s the Incestuous Small Town From Which There Is No Escape—and it’s pure Hollywood hokum. (All that said, Sayles’s portrait of rural Texas is a lot more convincing than his take on the big cities—namely, a single scene featuring Frances McDormand as a screeching football nut whose suburban house is bedecked in Cowboys, Oilers, and Aggies paraphernalia.) As for the look of the movie, it feels awfully puny for a so-called epic; Sayles, who shoots everything from the same TV-ready medium shot, never gives us any meaningful sense of what this border community looks like or how its many disparate parts connect.
Mostly, though, Lone Star is hopelessly in love with its own faux progressiveness: It argues that the white population of the state long denied Mexicans and blacks a voice and that the “real” modern Texas is a stewed-together pot of races and creeds, with everyone’s history bleeding into everyone else’s. Except, really, was anyone actually arguing otherwise? (Remember: This movie was made in 1996, not 1926.) And instead of getting onto the screen some of these unwritten histories—the black saloon owner (Randy Stripling) who bribes the sheriff to keep his bar afloat, for instance, or the restaurateur (Miriam Colon) who suppresses her own identity as an illegal immigrant to be accepted by white society—Sayles allows those stories to recede far into the background. And in their place, he makes the central preoccupation of Lone Star a very familiar, Field of Dreams-y one. You know, the old saw about the unhappy middle-aged white guy who must come to terms with the legacy of his dearly departed papa.
The greatest modern Texas movie? If that’s the case, we’d all do well to up and move to Boston.
LET THERE BE HYPE: A film we should canonize.
When it opened in the fall of 2004, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights was greeted with polite but hardly ecstatic reviews; most critics just seemed grateful it wasn’t another dumb, jock-worshipping fantasy like Varsity Blues. But if any recent Texas movie deserves to be regarded as a classic, it’s this beautifully directed adaptation of H. G. Bissinger’s best-seller about Odessa’s Permian High School football team. Billy Bob Thornton is slyly understated as the coach who realizes he’s damned if he wins and damned if he don’t. Most powerful is the way Berg captures the racial and economic tensions of this insular community and how he shows high school athletics programs to be ethical cesspools, where coaches, parents, and players are complicit in draining the joy out of sport. That, and Friday Night Lights moves—zigging, zagging, and zooming across the field, drawing us to the action. A glacially paced monolith like Lone Star just can’t compete.