Tuesday, November 29, 2011
A Engaging, Multilayered Murder Mystery from John Sayles
John Sayles has worked as a screenwriter and script doctor in mainstream Hollywood, but when he creates his own films, he works independently, retaining total control over the writing, directing, and editing. Of the films of his I've seen, I've most enjoyed Matewan (1987), Passion Fish (1992) and Limbo (1999), but they've all been worth a look, because Sayles is that rare commodity: a major independent filmmaker who makes cinema by observing real life, not recycling other movies.
His City of Hope (1991) interwove several plot lines to create a portrait of corruption in big-city politics. Lone Star takes a similar approach, but the result is a more human and accessible film, one that holds our interest better with both a mystery and a love story.
In a modern-day Texas border town, the remains of a former sheriff are found in the desert. The current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), sets out to investigate this 40-year-old murder, interviewing people from all over town, who in turn flash back to the past and introduce us to a previous generation of characters. The murder mystery serves as the MacGuffin, to use Hitchcock's word - the gimmick that propels the plot, like "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane.
Sayles himself has compared this film to a Raymond Chandler novel, in that the journey of the detective is what's interesting, not who did the crime. As the murder may have involved Sam Deeds's father, Sam's investigation becomes a personal quest. He moves among a myriad of characters--white, black, and Hispanic, past and present--sorting out a complex story and uncovering the realities behind the local myths, even when the truth becomes personally painful.
With just a few quick strokes of his ever-quotable dialogue, Sayles establishes one believable character after another. For the flashbacks, he goes against sepia-toned convention and uses a nifty transition device that emphasizes the immediacy and relevance of the past. As the people and their stories accumulate and dovetail, a mosaic of the small multicultural town emerges. That Sayles can interweave so many characters and story lines and still end up with a movie that hangs together demonstrates some tour-de-force filmmaking.
There's also some thematic unity holding the strands together. In interviews, Sayles has referred to the importance of "borders" in this film. The sheriff's quest takes him across every conceivable border, from the literal Texas/Mexico line to the town's unmarked borders of race and social class, to the symbolic boundaries between the sexes, between parents and children, between past and present, between myth and reality. The journey makes for a rich and fascinating film that rewards a second viewing. Also starring Matthew McConaughey, Elizabeth Peña and Kris Kristofferson.
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