by KE Monahan Huntley
John Sayles' modern version of the western is rich in complex characters and thematic conflicts. Lone Star contains a textured plot layered with subplots that bolster, rather than encumber, the Dramatica grand argument woven throughout this languidly paced, critically acclaimed, film.
Sheriff Charlie "acted the kingfish with everybody" Wade's skeleton is discovered (story driver-action) on the outskirts of a Texas border town ("a lively mix of . . . Mexican . . . Anglo . . . Black . . . Kickapoo"). The objective story goal is thus established--an honest and accurate recollection (memory) of what really happened the night Charlie Wade vanished, forty years ago. Sam Deeds (main character) is the son (mc thematic counterpoint-situation) of Buddy Deeds. Buddy was described as "a cool breeze" who supposedly drove Charlie Wade out and then ruled the town with his own kind of benevolent justice. Barely visible behind Buddy's larger than life shadow: "I know you had problems with your father" (mc problem-inequity), Sam has recently returned to Frontera as the new sheriff in town-put into power by local politicos armed with their own agenda.
A substory involving Otis "Big O" Payne, a black nightclub owner and his estranged son, an Army officer (recently assigned to the Frontera post) and his son, reinforces the thematic conflict of Buddy and Sam's relations (circumstances vs. situation). These objective characters, among a number of others, are developed in their own right while participating at pivotal moments in the case of Who shot Charlie Wade?
Sam is suspicious (os catalyst) of the popular version of Wade's disappearance (os thematic issue-falsehood; os symptom-speculation). He is particularly frustrated in his attempts to conceptualize (mc concern) the chain of events (mc mental sex-male) as they really occurred (os thematic counterpoint-truth). As a be-er, his approach is to put himself next to the people and places of the time. During the course of the investigation, Sam reconnects (relationship story thematic counterpoint-fate) with Pilar (influence character), the love of his life.
Pilar, a widow with two rapidly developing teen children (ic problem-change), is a teacher (ic benchmark-learning) in town. A heated school board meeting about which interpretation (ic thematic issue) of regional history Pilar relays to students points up the rigid biases (os domain-mind) of the townspeople: "It's tearing everything down. Tearing down our heritage, tearing down the memory (os concern) of people who fought and died for this land . . ." Pilar attempts to make them understand (ic concern): "I've only been trying to get across part of the complexity of our situation down here. Cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways."
Flashbacks depict Sam and Pilar's star-crossed romance (rs concern-past). For reasons known only to Sam's father and Pilar's mother, Mercedes Cruz (rs inhibitor-evidence), they are forbidden (rs problem-inequity) to court. Parental interference (rs catalyst-interdiction) only heightens the feelings (rs symptom-desire) they share. Buddy and Mercedes keep them apart until present (rs benchmark) day: "We haven't talked since high school."
As Sam uncovers each falsehood (os thematic issue), scenarios for the night in question become more limited (optionlock). He asks Hollis, his father's deputy:
You thought (story requirement-conscious) any more about our murder?
I wish I could tell you that I remembered (story goal-memory) something new but I can't.
I think Buddy put a bullet in him . . . and never looked back. . . . I'm gonna find out one way or the other.
The real truth is Hollis shot the sheriff with Otis and Buddy as witnesses. "People liked the story we told, better than anything the truth (os thematic counterpoint) might have been. It's your call Sam."
I don't think the [Texas] rangers are likely to find out anymore than they already know (outcome-failure). As for me, it's just one of your unsolved mysteries (mc growth-stop).
Loose ends tied up in the objective story, a mystery pertinent to Sam's main character throughline is solved. Buddy and Mercedes had had a love affair of their own resulting in Pilar (rs domain-universe), which is why his father had been adamantly opposed to Sam and Pilar's relationship.
So that's it? You're not going to want to be with me anymore?
No longer defined by his father (mc resolve-change), Sam replies: "If I met you for the first time today, I'd still want to be with you" (judgment-good).
And the music plays on: "My love is a deep blue sea. So deep, so deep that I'll never be free" (rs thematic issue-destiny).
About the Author
KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.
Almost uniquely among contemporary film makers, John Sayles has never directed a bad film. While most independent director-writers concentrate on refining their narrow fields of interest, essentially making the same film over and over, Sayles is astonishingly eclectic. His body of work is unified only by intelligence and commitment, ranging across genres, moods and scales.
In a terrific opening, a couple of off-duty soldiers fooling around in the desert near the border town of Frontera discover a human skull. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Cooper) is called in and guesses the long-dead man might have been Charlie Wade (Kristofferson), an old-school lawman of the "bullets and bribes" school who disappeared 30 years earlier, after an argument with Sam's dad, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Buddy, Sheriff before his son, is a legendary local whose stature is by no means an unmixed blessing to Sam as he tries to make his way in a changing town.
Also mixed up are Pilar (Pena), a Hispanic history teacher whose teenage romance with Sam was squelched by Buddy, and Mercedes (Miriam Colon), Pilar's powerful restaurant-running mother. Colonel Payne (Joe Morton), C.O. of a soon-to-be-closed army base, has a tie-in through his father Otis (Ron Canada), who runs an off-limits bar. As Sam asks questions and prompts conflicting flashback anecdotes, he comes to understand his own intricate family backstory - which includes a kicker of a last-act revelation - and its relationship with the evolving political and racial situation along the border.
Like the earlier City Of Hope, Lone Star demands the viewer's complete engagement with a huge cast and depends on the gradual release of plot information that makes connections between characters grow as the film progresses. Even one-scene characters are unforgettable, but Sayles really gets under the skin of his struggling-to-be-heroic leads, Sam and Pilar.
Like all the best Westerns, this is at once a morality play about individual responsibility and a challenging essay about American history. You'll watch this for the third or fourth time and see fresh material. Outstanding.