JOHN SAYLES'S AMBITIOUS, WONDERfully complex Lone Star covers 40 years in the history of the small but certainly not sleepy border town of Frontera, Texas, the sort of place where a murder that occurred in 1957 can have shattering aftershocks in 1996. A skull and a lawman's badge, discovered in the desert outside town, kick off the story. Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), Frontera's sheriff, is convinced the skull is that of Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), the vicious, corrupt and all-powerful sheriff who ruled Frontera when the white man held all the power, and the town's Hispanics and blacks lived in fear of Wade's gun. But Sam's investigation into this ancient murder has a double edge, because he suspects the man who killed Wade was the sheriff who replaced him-Sam's own father Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), a legend whom nearly everyone in the town still reveres. Everyone except his son, who has never forgiven his father for breaking up his childhood romance with a local Hispanic girl, and who has never been able to escape his father's large shadow.
This is just the entry gate to Sayles's epic. As in his 1991 "City of Hope," Sayles weaves a dense, novelistic fabric that follows at least 10 major characters and scads of vividly evoked minor parts, revealing with an almost Dickensian largesse the interconnections that bind and divide this racially and ethnically fraught town. Thedirector slides startlingly into his flashbacks, mixing past and present as if erasing the distinction between the two. His point is clear: we carry our history within us, our past always in our present. The question that all his characters are grappling with in this tale of fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, is how to move on, to transcend the trap of history?
It's a question Sam must face when he rekindles his romance with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), his childhood sweetheart. She's now a widow, a mother and a highschool teacher involved in her own battles over whose version of Texas history will be taught. The past weighs heavily on Pilar's mother (Miriam Colon), a successful businesswoman who wants to distance herself from her Mexican roots-she insists that only English be spoken in her presence. For Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), the tightly wound black commander of the local military base, returning to the town he fled involves a painful confrontation with his father, Otis (Ron Canada), who abandoned him as a child.
Sayles invests all his characters with depths and nuances increasingly rare in American movies. He takes his sweet time laying out his themes and disclosing his secrets, but if the storytelling sometimes threatens to become languid the diversions serve a purpose. The payoff comes at the end, when the myriad threads pull together with a shock like a noose tightening around your neck. Built with old-fashioned craftsmanship, "Lone Star" is not a movie you'll quickly forget. It may not dazzle you with its flash, but it has more on its mind than all the summer wouldbe blockbusters put together.