Tex meets Mex

Lone Star: John Sayles
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It can hardly be an accident when a literate film director like John Sayles names a character Deeds and casts an actor called Cooper to play him. His new film Lone Star is Mr Deeds Goes to Town, to be sure, but Sayles perhaps covets the universal appeal of Frank Capra's populism. There's no one in current American cinema who has so consistently addressed the traditional issues of class and labour, and tried to extend himself into the areas of race, gender and sexual orientation. Yet he can sometimes seem stranded, as a film-maker who will cheerfully write trashy screenplays for others so as to finance his own projects but who isn't a director for hire, and also as a middle-aged white heterosexual male making engaging films at a time when independent cinema is seen as the domain of special interests and identity politics. Is he a keeper of the flame, or a sprightly dinosaur?

Sam Deeds in Lone Star, hasn't gone to town, he's come back, back to the small Texas town that still remembers his father Buddy as a great sheriff, and is willing to give Sam the same job on the basis of the name. Sam has spent a couple of years as sheriff of Rio County, trying to make a life for himself in his dad's shadow - though his real reason for returning was to be near his high school sweetheart Pilar - when a skeleton turns up on an abandoned rifle range with a corroded sheriff's star next to it. The dead man was the sheriff before Buddy, a corrupt racist who left town after being threatened with the law by his righteous deputy - Sam's dad, no less. Sam investigates, half hoping that the town's idol will have feet of clay - feet of clay right up to his armpits.

Chris Cooper, who plays Sam, is certainly no Gary Cooper. If there is an heir to Gary Cooper in Lone Star, it's Matthew McConaughey who plays Buddy in the film's flashbacks. It's only in a Sayles film that the ordinary- looking guy can get to play the lead, and the up-and-coming heartthrob is kept firmly in the background. In A Time to Kill, a film in which both actors appear, the cowboy boot was on the other foot.

Sayles's screenplay sets up three voyages of discovery into the past, one for each racial grouping. Besides Sam's investigation, there's the presence in town of a new Army colonel (Joe Morton), who happens to be the estranged son of the black local bar owner, Otis. And there's Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), a teacher who encourages her pupils to consider the political aspects of the history they study. Pilar has an exasperating mother, Mercedes, who runs a restaurant and seems hell-bent on forgetting that she was ever from Mexico.

There are also three inter-racial romances, on what comes perilously close to seeming a quota basis. Besides Sam's rekindled intimacy with Pilar, there's a white-black affair on the Army base, while the colonel's own father is living with a Hispanic woman.

The theme of the film is endlessly repeated. Otis says, "It's not like there's a borderline between the good people and the bad people. You're not on one side or the other." The permeable arbitrary boundary between Mexico and Texas clearly has a symbolic role to play as well as a real one. As a character from south of the border asks Sam, "A bird flying south - you think he sees that line? A snake?"

The best moments in Lone Star are unstressed sidelong looks at an America in suppressed turmoil. White parents on the textbook committee complain about Pilar's teaching - the only valuable contributions they concede to Mexico are in the realms of music and cooking. A Hispanic deputy manhandles a black prisoner, enjoying the transfer of power and the vulnerability of a new minority. In a quietly daring scene, Mercedes, relaxing on her patio, sees two men running by carrying plastic bags, and phones the border patrol without a second thought to report a couple of illegals.

But if Sayles's theme is that things aren't neat and predictable, he has a very neat and predictable way of showing it. At 135 minutes Lone Star is sprawling. The press-kit boasts that it has the largest number of speaking parts of any Sayles film to date, as if that was necessarily a good thing. The narrative strands are neatly tied off in the last few minutes, with a common suggestion: that our parents are more complicated than we imagine, so perhaps we shouldn't rush to judge them. This is something of a damp squib, in terms of storytelling as much as of politics. The hardline characters were interesting before we saw their softer side and understood their dilemmas. The tough colonel is confronted with a private, who wouldn't know esprit de corps if it came up and bit her on the bottom, and re-examines his desire to have his arty son follow in his military footsteps. Mercedes has to help an injured illegal immigrant, and comes to see that they are sisters under the skin.

The screenwriter of Piranha or The Howling knew what was required to hold an audience's interest, but the director of Lone Star is above such things. It's admirable that the violence in the film should be underplayed, that a gunfight in a bar takes place off camera, but the film badly needs a shot of adrenaline from somewhere.

And, of course, for all its sermonising on people not being altogether on one side or the other, the film relies on having one bona fide racist monster, the sheriff from the Fifties played by Kris Kristofferson, for whose benefit no humanising encounter or explanatory history is contrived. Lone Star never quite lives up, in its storytelling, to its incidental observations, or to the teasing image early on in the film of a row of Hispanic women in the jailhouse, whose sons are in custody, sitting under a row of photographs of past sheriffs. Implacable white men in white hats.

'Lone Star' is released on Friday.