Film: Return of a man called Sayles

The critics: A tale of two directors: John Sayles's murder mystery 'Lone Star' is a cause for celebration; Francis Coppola's 'Jack' is not
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In much the same way that calling Moby Dick a portrait of the whaling industry in New England might seem a rather stingy, po-faced account of that baggy beast's themes, it would be misleadingly simple to describe John Sayles's hugely accomplished Lone Star (15) as a murder mystery set in a Texan border town. Fair enough, Melville had his cetaceans and harpoons, Sayles has his corpse and his cops - the film begins with the discovery of a skeleton, a rusty sheriff's badge and a Masonic ring. But the narratives which loop out from this grisly exhumation have less in common with most movie thrillers than with leisurely 19th-century novels, or with the television serials which have taken on the old job of dealing with large numbers of disparate characters and all the accidents, guilts and attractions which unite their apparently unrelated lives. What other media usually require 600 pages or 13 weekly episodes to lay down and unravel, Lone Star pulls off in a little over two hours.

As in his earlier films City of Hope and Matewan, the real protagonist of Lone Star is a place - a rotting, painfully divided town called Frontera that stubbornly refuses to gel into any semblance of community. Frontera is divided by race (19 out of 20 citizens are Hispanic, but the Anglos rule), age, nationality (wetbacks keep splashing into town), economics and bitter historical grudges. Among the notable locals: Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), a black Army colonel, and his estranged father Otis (Ron Canada), who owns the only bar where African-Americans feel safe to drink; Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), a widowed schoolteacher and her wealthy, reactionary mother Mercedes (Miriam Colon), who owns a restaurant, and regularly turns in illegal Mexican immigrants.

A motley crowd, and necessarily so, since one of the points of Lone Star is to unite by the grace of storytelling characters who are not, and perhaps never can be, united by other means - to show that its people have deeper, if not always more reassuring connections with each other than they are willing to admit. There's a hint of Greek tragedy to this - in one subplot, a whiff of Oedipus himself - and the insinuation that Frontera might not be the only place in Texas that owes its existence to murder. The ultimate drift, though, is towards a wary optimism about the possibility of hatchet- burying. The script's final line: "Forget the Alamo."

On the way to that small epiphany, we cover a lot of ground. Our Virgil through the twists and curves of this sun-struck, murky place is Sheriff Sam Deeds (beautifully acted by Chris Cooper, a Sayles veteran). Deeds is a man in early middle-age, decent and laconic but so sodden with private misery that even when he smiles or proffers some wan joke he looks like he's flinching on a rack. Before long, he has established that the uncovered bones are the remains of a corrupt, indeed near- psychotic sheriff, Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson, in a brief but stinging appearance), who disappeared in the late 1950s; and he strongly suspects that the man who did for him may have been his own late father, Sheriff Buddy Deeds (the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey). Since Sam has spent his whole life crushed under Buddy's legend, he is understandably conflicted, as they say nowadays, about the investigation.

Where most directors would stick firmly on the detecting track, though, Sayles allows himself to digress, amplify, back-track and round up all kinds of folk who have nothing immediately to do with the case in hand. His social fabric is so absorbingly and economically drawn that you might not notice that he's performing the directorial equivalent of keeping dozens of china plates spinning on sticks. Yet nothing ever feels clotted or rushed, and the only moments of confusion are deliberate - trompe l'oeil effects in which one momentarily mistakes an action four decades past for an action in the present. Such tricks are made possible by strategic rule-breaking: early on, Sayles sets up the convention of passing backwards and forwards in time within a single uninter- rupted pan, so that when he time-travels with a straight cut, you're wrong-footed.

Some viewers may feel cheated by Sayles's wide canvas and expansive method, and be left impatient for the more single-minded narrative drive of the conventional body movie. It's true that Lone Star is short on cop-show thrills, and that the final revelation of who really killed Charley Wade, though wonderfully staged, isn't quite such a surprise or big deal as one might hope. In just about every other regard, however, it's a feast - dense, thoughtful and idiosyncratic, with some of the most quietly accomplished acting to be found in any recent American movie. Its only flaw is a slight tendency towards speeches which spell out the film's otherwise tactfully understated musings on the weight of history, borders literal and metaphorical, and so on.

Dip into Lone Star at almost any point and you'll find some unexpected pleasure: a montage of forensic chemistry incongruously cut to peppy Tex- Mex music; salty dialogue and pungent idioms (a coroner classifies dead bodies as "skinny or stinky, dependin' how much meat on the bones"); wholly unpredictable scenes, as when Col Payne gently instructs a troubled young black private in the virtues of military life; a halting, touching affair between mature people which transcends one of the most fundamental of human borderlines; and enough in the way of hard-won repentances and reconciliations to qualify the last reel as a bit of a feel-good ending. Plot-wise, Lone Star makes you feel warily optimistic about American society; as an artefact, it leaves you with a similarly guarded optimism about American cinema.

And then you go and see Jack (PG), a folly of quite incomprehensible magnitude committed by a man who was once taken for the Herman Melville of Movie Brats, Francis Ford Coppola. We've seen the main conceit before, in Big, or, if we are very wrinkly, Vice Versa. Robin Williams plays an otherwise normal 10-year-old boy who, because he suffers from a rare, nay, wholly hypothetical condition which makes him age four times as rapidly as normal, has the body of a 40-year-old man. Coppola doesn't push this notion of accelerated life until his weepy conclusion, though it may have struck him as justification for indulging once again in the fast- motion camera he used in Rumble Fish. (If so, he'll be in the minority.)

Williams, who is the only half-way respectable reason for seeing the movie, might have been a whiz in the role, but the film requires so much pathos of him - harping on Jack's timidity and loneliness - that the comedy is at best pallid, and at worst illustrates why the adjective "puerile" is such an insult. It ends with a metaphor about shooting stars; but if you really want your tears jerked, go and see The Godfather, Part Two again and reflect on Coppola's terrible plunge to earth over the past two decades.

The most characteristic shot in Udayan Prasad's Brothers in Trouble (15) is of action half-glimpsed through a crack in a door, or between floorboards, or through a crate: it gives the film a hunched, furtive, paranoid feel, well suited to its subject matter: the experiences of a group of Pakistani immigrants (especially Amir, acted by Pavan Malhotra) in the Britain of the mid-1960s, working illegally at menial factory chores and crammed into cramped, grimy accommodation. So much of the film is set within their house that the white host culture is barely glimpsed, and it has some of the enduring fascination of a PoW movie, showing the ingenious ways in which men cope with confinement, sexual frustration and domestic crisis. The modesty, austerity and gentle wit of the tale has some pleasing affinities with Kafka; this is an original, and affecting in odd ways.

London's Barbican Cinema opens its season of Yiddish films with one of the most successful musicals ever made in the language, Joseph Green's Yiddle With His Fiddle (1936), a jolly yarn about a group of klezmorim, or travelling players, including a young girl dressed up (implausibly) as a boy, who have various scrapes and shaves until hitting the big time. It's closer to Gracie Fields than Gold-Diggers of 1933, and closer to folk art than either, but it has a lot of naive and sentimental charm - now overshadowed by the sickening uncertainty as to how many of the faces on screen would perish in the Nazi camps. Never such innocence again.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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