Shooting on the Border

Why John Sayles’s Lone Star takes its improbable place in the pantheon of great Texas movies.

THERE IS AN OBLIGATORY SCENE in every movie about the border between Texas and Mexico: A man draws a line in the dirt with his boot. The line means something different in each movie, and yet, there it is, a narrow little rut in the ground that the characters gesture toward, talk about, and ponder before they stand meaningfully on one side or the other. In Viva Max! (1969) Peter Ustinov, in the role of a Mexican general who has recaptured the Alamo in modern times, draws a line in front of his troops in the Alamo dirt just as Travis in legend drew the mother of all lines during the real siege. In The Border (1982) Jack Nicholson, playing a Border Patrol agent who is slowly turning corrupt, draws the line between himself and an already corrupt agent played by Harvey Keitel. Nicholson shouts excitedly that he might do some bad things but he won’t be involved in murder—that’s a line he won’t cross. In Lone Star, which opened in early July and features our cover subject, Matthew McConaughey, the line is drawn by “Chucho,” who owns a tire repair shop in a Mexican border town. After dragging his boot through the rocky soil, he says to the sheriff from the town on the Texas side, “Bird flying south—you think he sees that line? Rattlesnake, javelina—whatever you got—halfway across that line they don’t start thinking different. So why should a man?”

Just why men might start thinking differently when they cross the

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