Director in Focus: John Sayles – Lone Star

For the next six months or so, I have decided to take a look at a director whose entire filmography will be new for me. The first director up will be John Sayles. Sayles’ name has come across my radar many times but I’ve never sought out his pictures until now. What I know about him is that he typically prefers large casts and very complex narratives, sort of like Robert Altman but with less improvisation. Sayles has done a tremendous amount of screenwriting work on films as diverse as The Howling, Apollo 13, and The Fugitive. It was an unproduced screenplay, titled Night Skies, that Sayles wrote which inspired Spielberg’s E.T. I hope that you learn as much as I do about a new major director in the American cinema with me as we go.

Lone Star (1996, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey

My feelings after seeing Lone Star was that Sayles made a perfect concept for the first season a television drama. There are so many characters and so many myriad plot strands that the two hours the film takes does not feel like enough to do them justice. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good film, it just feels like so much for such a small portion of time.

The film is set in Rio County, Texas where two off-duty soldiers discover a partially buried skeleton wearing a sheriff’s badge. Current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is called in and an investigation begins revealing the skeleton to be that of Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who mysteriously disappeared forty years earlier. Sam starts asking questions of the older members of Rio County and is met with many warnings to leave the past alone. Simultaneously, we follow Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), Sam’s high school sweetheart and current social studies teacher. The circumstances of how their relationship ended becomes entangled in some of the same events that brought about the death of Sheriff Wade.

Much like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Lone Star is very much about things that happen below the surface level. There is the core mystery of the film, but there is just as much time devoted to the racial history of Texas. One scene involves a meeting of parents upset about the way Pilar teaches the history of Texas, giving a sympathetic view of the Mexicans’ role. A new courthouse is being dedicated during the film and an ongoing argument in the film revolves around whether to name it after Sam’s father, Buddy (also a sheriff) or to name it after a notable Mexican-American in the community. Pilar’s mother clings to her Spanish heritage over her Mexican roots and yells at her cantina’s staff if they do not speak in English.

The only flaw with the film is as I said before, so much for such a small amount of time. There are so many subplots, and they weave and connect together flawlessly, but I think they would have grown and matured better if allowed 12 to 13 hour long episodes to develop. As a series this would have combined the smalltown politics of Friday Night Lights with an investigation concept. The picture left me thinking that in the current climate of series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, there would definitely be a home for Sayles if he ever wished to developed a series.

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