You may remember that the last noir film I watched, Touch of Evil, took place in a border town and dealt with racial politics. You may also remember that I didn’t care for it very much. Or at all. Coincidentally, my next film, Lone Star, also took place in a border town and dealt with racial politics.
Thankfully, this one’s a strong contender for my favorite noir of the year.
When a recently discovered skeleton turns out to be the 40 year old remains of universally despised Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), current Sheriff Sam Deeds (Sam Cooper) tries to uncover how his own dead father, nearly universally beloved Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) was involved. Lot of sheriffs, in this one.
1. This movie has a lot going for it. Cast, especially.
Here are some of the people in this movie: Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Joe Morton, Ron Canada, Miriam Colon, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Clifton James, Chandra Wilson, and Francis McDormand. I refuse to talk about every single one of them individually, but they’re all pretty solid. A few specific notes:
A: In a large cast with a lot going on, Chris Cooper makes for a compelling lead.
His performance is understated, which serves the tone of the story well, but Cooper still manages to stand out without benefit of any particular showy monologues or breakdowns. I like him a whole lot in this film.
B. Both Ron Canada and Joe Morton are fantastic, and I definitely want them both in the movie, but (EXCEPTIONALLY MINOR SPOILERS) the decision to cast them as father and son is particularly curious considering that Morton (on the left) is actually two years older than his supposed father.
I know Hollywood likes to play it fast and loose with casting in regards to age, but I haven’t seen a choice this boldly inaccurate since Kevin Tighe played Terry O’Quinn’s dad in Lost. And at least Tighe IS actually older than O’Quinn. (Even if he would’ve had to father John Locke at the tender age of eight.)
C. It was kind of awesome to see Chandra Wilson, even if she’s just a relatively small role in the movie.
She’s a wonderfully talented actress, and I’m looking forward to the eventual end of Grey’s Anatomy in hopes of seeing her in something that actually gives her good material to work with. (I think Grey’s Anatomy ran out of legitimate stories for Bailey about three years ago, and they’ve been floundering with her character ever since.)
D. I was amused to see Kris Kristofferson in this because I had just watched a segment of Drunk History devoted to him only the night before. (Drunk History can be difficult for me. I think the reenactments are hilarious, but sometimes watching the actual drunk people triggers that annoying sympathetic social embarrassment thing I have. This is why comedy will forever and always be a harder genre for me to watch than horror.) Also, I suppose this is one of those generational gap things, but I had absolutely no idea that Kristofferson was a famous singer and songwriter. I mean, he wrote “Me and Bobby McGee,” for God’s sake. I just knew him as that guy from the Blade movies.
E. In general, I’m happy with how they cast the extras in this film. There’s a scene in the classroom, for instance, where the majority of kids are Latino — which maybe doesn’t sound like a big deal one way or the other, but the movie makes a point of noting that this town’s population is heavily Latino, which means all the kids shouldn’t be Caucasian 25-year-olds pretending to be 16 year old sophomores. I like that the population of this town actually looks like they belong there.
2. The script is also incredibly strong. I was surprised (but very pleased) to see that John Sayles earned himself a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. (He lost to the Coen brothers for Fargo, which . . . well, someday, SOMEDAY, I’ll give that a second try. But seriously, boo.) There are all kinds of great quotes, plus it handles a lot of stuff really well. Lone Star is a mystery where you’re slowly piecing together how everyone fits in with everyone else, and it very successfully engages you as an audience member and draws you into the story. Moreover, it’s a pretty tight mystery. By the end of the film, you see how each subplot sets up or informs the other, and it’s all very carefully structured. I don’t think there are many questions left unanswered, and the only one that really bothers me is more for a personal reason than a story reason. (I’ll follow up on that in the Spoiler Section.)
I will say this: there are a couple of Big Revelations in the movie, and while I didn’t get one — because I second-guessed myself, dammit, why must I always, always do that — I did find the other one pretty patently obvious. This surprisingly didn’t take away any of my enjoyment of the film. I just wonder if it’s a development that took anyone else by surprise.
3. There are also some interesting discussions on race. I particularly like the scene where various parents and staff from the high school are arguing about the history curriculum. I was like, Yup. That seems depressingly accurate. We get a really good picture of this town, the people who live in it, the flavor of the local politics. Not all of it is directly related to the mystery, but it all builds atmosphere and I think makes the story even stronger.
4. It’s also helpful that none of the characters are Good or Evil. In fact, that’s a main theme in the movie, pivotal enough that one of the characters actually says it to someone else. Everyone in Lone Star is complicated and hypocritical and trying to do the right thing. No one is just a hero or a villain.
Well. Maybe except this guy.
This guy is pretty much just an evil shit. Everyone else, though, is refreshingly well-rounded.
5. Two of my favorite characters in this movie are Mickey and Cliff.
They’re the two guys who find the skeleton in the first place, and they’re pretty awesome comic reliefs. One scene in particular really had me giggling. My only regret about these guys is that they kind of just drop out of the story in the second half, and while I know there’s an awful lot going on, I did kind of miss them by the end. I don’t know. It’s a balance thing.
6. Finally, at one point in the film, Sheriff Sam Deeds drives to Mexico. We know because we see him drive through the border, and yet I was horribly confused because . . . where was the yellow filter? Everyone knows that Mexico is a hot, dusty place that causes a strange film to go over your eyes, enabling you to see the country the way God intended, with a yellow tint. The way it’s shot here, it’s like . . . Mexico is just any other place.
Crazy talk, I know.
So, there are a number of suspects in Sheriff Charlie Wade’s murder. Soon-to-be-Sheriff Buddy Deeds famously told corrupt Charlie to get the hell out of town, and while everyone assumed Charlie just left, it looks like Buddy easily could have buried him instead. Before that, Charlie publicly humiliated Young Otis (not to mention came close to killing him), so Young Otis might’ve decided to do something about that. And then Charlie actually did murder Eladio Cruz, a man who smuggled illegal immigrants across the border. Eladio was married to Mercedes (Miriam Colon), so she certainly had motive as well.
Charlie’s own deputy, Young Hollis, turns out to be the murderer. See, Hollis was with Charlie when he shot Eladio in the back. Horrified, Hollis mostly just gaped at him, but when he saw Charlie about to kill Otis exactly the same way, Hollis killed Charlie instead. Buddy walked in just in time to see, and he, Otis, and Hollis covered the whole thing up.
Frustratingly, I didn’t get this correct. I actually assumed Hollis was — well, not the bad guy, really, but the killer — from the very beginning, but when so many other elements were introduced, my certainty wavered and I guessed somebody else. (Dammit. How many times have I told you, Carlie? Never second guess! This is like And Then There Were None all over again.) Mekaela, I’m sure, would like you all to know that while she wasn’t sure about the identity of the killer, she did correctly guess that Charlie was killed at Otis’s bar. Feel free to praise her genius at your leisure.
At least I knew (well, we both knew) that Pilar and Sam, once high school sweethearts who were tragically separated by their angry parents, were secretly half-brother-and-sister.
Supposedly, Eladio is Pilar’s father, but we find out that Buddy (swell, helpful, all around good guy Buddy) had a mistress on the side. Actually, Mek and I guessed Pilar’s parentage well before Sam even found out there was a mistress, let alone who. As soon as Pilar started asking Miriam why she never got married again after Eladio was killed, we pretty much knew there was someone else, and it didn’t take more than a few seconds to work out who.
This is interesting to point out because over the last couple of years I’ve come up with a Story Rule: incest should never be a surprise. Incest is a tricky taboo, and very honestly, usually kind of squicks me out — but if handled very, very well, I can overcome that, even to the point where I like the two characters together. There aren’t many examples of this, admittedly. But I full-on ship Richie/Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, and I consider that incest, even if they aren’t blood related. (It’s not really about the genetics for me, you know?)
However, until Lone Star, I have NEVER liked incest as a Big Reveal or Twist, and I’m trying to decide why it works for me here. I don’t know if it’s because the incest simply wasn’t a surprise for me — as I knew these two were related for at least an hour before the movie actually told me — or if it’s because I liked Sam and Pilar together as much as I did, or what. Maybe it’s because these two weren’t raised as brother and sister, so it just doesn’t bother me as much. For whatever reason, I was still totally shipping these two throughout the movie, though not looking forward to the (understandably) melodramatic breakdown Sam and Pilar would inevitably have when they discovered why their parents really separated them as teenagers.
So imagine my pleasant surprise when that’s not how the movie ended at all.
Off screen, Sam does the uncomfortable math and realizes that Eladio can’t be Pilar’s father. He goes to tell her that they’re siblings. Pilar mentions that she can’t have any more kids and, thinking he’s leaving her, asks if that’s it, if it’s over. Sam tells her he’ll always want to be with her, and they decide to start fresh, bury the past. It’s actually quite a lovely, quiet scene and makes for a solid conclusion to the film. I’d have been okay if they’d broken up, too — I mean, I totally get why they would — but I actually kind of like that they choose not to. Other than just wanting them to be happy, it works well thematically. Forget the Alamo and all.
A few other, Spoilery notes before we end this review:
1. Frankly, I think Mercedes and Buddy should have just told Pilar and Sam they were related instead of separating them in the first place. I guess I get why they didn’t, but honestly? It would have been more effective. I doubt Pilar and Sam would’ve stayed together as teenagers, but I totally get why they do as adults. Because Pilar apparently is wrong: people apparently do stay in love for 23 years.
2. Again, I like that the majority of the characters don’t fit easily into good or evil. Buddy generally tried to do right by people and covered up for Hollis’s totally justifiable felony, but he also cheated on his wife for years — which everyone knew about, including his wife — and according to one particularly charming racist bartender, Buddy would encourage interracial couples to go out less together in public, you know, so as not to disturb the peace. Mercedes, meanwhile, has become a well-respected member of the community and is hugely critical of illegal immigrants, despite the fact that she secretly is an illegal immigrant. Otis (Ron Canada) is a generally likable guy trying to reconnect with his not particularly cooperative son, Delmore (Joe Morton), but he also abandoned Delmore when he was a kid, so. Yeah. Delmore’s got cause to be non-cooperative.
About this last — the only thing I wish we had more exposition on is why Otis abandoned Delmore as a kid. Not because we need it for the story, but because — as much as I like Otis — I find the ‘Deadbeat Daddy Tries to Reconnect With His Angry Child and Angry Child Eventually Forgives Him Because Daddy Always Loved Him, as Evidenced by His Secret Shrine to All the Kid’s Accomplishments, And That’s Really All That Matters’ trend to be immensely frustrating in film and television. There are levels of frustration here, obviously, depending on the execution — I could write an ESSAY about how much I despise this storyline when it pops up on Criminal Minds — but mostly, I just feel like these stories wrap up too easily, and it annoys me, when I feel like the kid is being blamed more for being angry than the parent is for actually leaving. (Especially in Reid’s case. I mean, SERIOUSLY, that’s just — okay, fine, letting it go for now.)
3. Lone Star is roughly two hours and fifteen minutes, but it never felt drawn out or boring, despite the fact that Mek and I kept pausing it for Clue Breaks (where we’d get a piece of the puzzle and try to figure out how it fit in) or for Bathroom Breaks (self-explanatory). I really like the structure of this a lot, how we set up Eladio’s murder as a possible motive for Mercedes, and how it really sets up the climactic scene where Otis is almost murdered in the same way and why Hollis had to kill Charlie.
4. Frances McDormand plays Sam’s ex-wife, Bunny, and she’s . . . interesting.
McDormand’s performance is great, and I really like how Sam interacts with her . . . but she’s not particularly integral to the story, and I’m trying to decide if I feel like her scene should or shouldn’t have been in the final product. I can’t quite make up my mind on it. Anybody out there have an opinion?
5. Finally, and just because I didn’t specifically mention them before — I really enjoyed Miriam Colon and Clifton James quite a bit in their respective roles. Elizabeth Peña, too. I think Chris Cooper, Ron Canada, and Miriam Colon were the strongest contenders for MVP.
Sam: “Well, I’m working on a few things. I’m going over to the other side.”
Sam: “No, Mexico.”
Mickey: “You met her family? Think her family’s gonna be okay that you’re a white guy?”
Cliff: “They think any women over 30 who isn’t married is a lesbian. She figures, they’ll be so relieved I’m a man . . .”
Mickey: “Yeah, it’s always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.”
Otis: “It’s not like there’s a line between the good people and the bad people. It’s not like you’re one or the other.”
Mickey: “Hey, Cliff!”
Cliff: “What’d you find? Pieces of eight? Relics from the Coronado expedition?”
Mickey: “Cliff, come here!”
(Cliff comes over and sees a partially buried skeleton.)
(Mickey picks up a ring beside the body)
Mickey: “Was Coronado in the Masons?”
Wesley: “This stretch of road runs between nowhere and not much else.”
Pilar: “All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.”
Chet: “So I’m part Indian?”
Otis: “By blood, you are. But blood only means what you let it.”
Hollis: “You killed him!”
Wade: “Son, you’ve got a talent for stating the obvious.”
Paloma: “You can’t be desperately in love when you’re fourteen years old.”
Sam: “I understand why you might want to think he couldn’t do it.”
Hollis: “I understand why you might want to think he could.”
Latino Mother: “We’re not changing anything. We’re just trying to present a more complete picture.”
Caucasian Mother: “And that has got to stop!”
Delmore: “Why do you think they let us in on the deal?”
Athena: “They got people to fight. Arabs, yellow people, whatever. They might as well use us.”
Delmore: “It works like this, Private. Every soldier in a war doesn’t have to believe what he’s fighting for. Most of them fight just to back up the other soldiers in their squad. They try not to get them killed. They try not to get them extra duty. You try not to embarrass yourself in front of them. Why don’t you start with that?”
Pilar’s Friend: “He’s available. You’re available.”
Pilar: “I’m unmarried. I’m not available.”
(after just having sex)
Pilar: “So, what are we going to do about this?”
Sam: “More, I hope.”
Sam: “If you mixed drinks the way you mixed metaphors, you’d be out of a job.”
Waitress: “Es tu madre?”
Waitress: “Lo siento.”
Otis: “Am I ever gonna meet that family of yours?”
Delmore: “Why would you want to do that?”
Otis: “Because I’m your father.”
Delmore: “You’ll get official notification when I make my decision.”
Chet: “He’s still pissed off because he didn’t have a . . .”
Otis: “Didn’t have a father? When you’re his age, you’ll still be pissed off at him.”
Hollis: “Word gets out, and people are gonna think Buddy done it.”
Sam: “Buddy’s a godamned legend. He can handle it.”
I can’t find a lot of fault in this one. Great script, great acting, and a solid bid for favorite noir of the year.
Don’t be a racist, power-hungry, murderous asshole, lest you be murdered yourself. (I feel like I’ve used this one before. It’s not reassuring, that this kind of advice needs to be repeated.)
Also, probably best to tell your kids upfront about why you’d prefer they didn’t have sex.