`Lone Star': The Past Won't Let Them Go

Movie review

XXX 1/2 "Lone Star," with Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Matthew McConaughey, Frances McDormand. Directed and written by John Sayles. Guild 45th. "R" - Restricted because of language, violence.

"The past carries the present like a child on its shoulders."

That's a quote from a Canadian movie, "The Confessional," that recently played the Seattle International Film Festival.

But it applies even more forcefully to "Lone Star," John Sayles' complex and rewarding new Texas murder mystery, starring Chris Cooper as a bordertown sheriff who lives in the shadow of his legendary father. Inextricably tied to the town in which they grew up, the movie's characters live in a kind of cyclorama made up of the past and present.

The sight of a familiar street corner, a much-visited house or a bend in the river can touch off a memory that quickly becomes as vivid as anything that's happening at the moment. That's partly because Sayles uses no cuts or dissolves or watery imagery to make the transitions from present to past and back again.

His people appear to co-exist in the same frame, the same tracking shot, with their younger selves. It's as if they can never escape the events that helped to form them. No matter where they go, within this limited radius, they're surrounded by geography that won't let them forget.

Sayles has never used such an attention-getting advice before, but it quickly becomes a natural, crucial part of the movie's narrative style. The past can't help but engulf the lives of an honest lawman and his friends when a decades-old corpse is discovered in the desert.

Sheriff Sam Deeds (Cooper) immediately suspects that the body is that of Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a racist, corrupt, sadistic sheriff who was supposedly run out of town many years ago by his own father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey).

Despite the advice of the easygoing mayor (Clifton James), Sam becomes obsessed with the case, in the process awakening a number of sleeping dogs. Before he's finished, much of the town's racial and political history has been exposed, and so has the traumatic course of Sam's own youth. Frances McDormand turns up as his football-obsessed ex-wife, Elizabeth Pena as his childhood sweetheart, and Miriam Colon as her secretive mother.

Also dragged into the past is the commander of a nearby Army base, Col. Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), whose estranged father (Ron Canada) was one of Wade's chief victims.

Kristofferson makes Wade a formidable villain, and McConaughey is so effective in his few flashback scenes that you wish the movie could have done more with Buddy. Morton and James, both veterans of previous Sayles movies, and Pena, who appeared in Sayles' television series "Shannon's Deal," all make indelible contributions.

Cooper, another member of the director's rep company, played key roles in Sayles' "Matewan" and "City of Hope" (which has much in common with "Lone Star"). He is cast again for his ability to suggest instantly a background for the character he's assigned. He's not related to Gary Cooper, but as Sayles points out, "he has that kind of haunted quality." He also has that rare ability to persuade an audience to follow him on a mission that may have less to do with justice than with settling scores with the dead.