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Film / Lone Star (1996)

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Start diggin' holes in this county, no telling what
will come up.

Sam: Do you have any idea who might have put him there? Other than my father.
Hollis: There's no cause for that. Wade made himself a pile of enemies over the years.
Sam: And Buddy was one of them. You know, people have this whole deal built up around my father. If it's built on a crime, I think they should know. I can understand why you'd want to think he couldn't do it.
Hollis: And I understand why you'd want to think he could.

Lone Star, directed by John Sayles, is a modern-day Western that examines the relationship between past and present, morality and righteousness, and the difference between myth and reality all while tackling the issues of race, gender, social class, police brutality, international relations, and historical revisionism.

The movie takes place in fictional Rio County, Texas, bordering Mexico. 19 out of 20 people in Rio County are Mexican-American, with whites in the minority and blacks in an even smaller minority. Anglos, however, have always run the town of Frontera, but with an all-but-elected Hispanic mayor coming, the minority white population feels that times are changing. To make matters worse, the local military base is shutting down (to be replaced with a new for-profit prison), big-city crime seems to be on the rise, and the discovery of a half-buried skeleton in the desert threatens to uncover a past that everybody would prefer to remain buried.

In the 1950s, Rio County suffered under the brutal rule of Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), an amoral lawman who terrorized the county profiting from protection rackets, smuggling, and wholesale murder when it suited him. Wade was especially fond of preying on powerless blacks and hispanics, either sending them to "the farm," or killing them in cold blood with impunity. When Deputy Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) arrives in town after a tour in the Korean War, he openly confronts the Sheriff, brazenly warning him to get out of town before he ended up "dead or in jail." The next day, Wade disappears along with $10,000 in county funds, and Rio County sees decades of peace and prosperity under Sheriff Buddy Deeds' watch.

When a rusted sheriff's badge is discovered near the above-mentioned skeleton, evidence mounts that Charlie Wade didn't go peacefully into the night. Buddy's son Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), now Sheriff of Rio County 40 some years later, investigates and suspects that his father just might not have been the hero that everybody remembers him to be...

The film's sole Academy Award nomination was for Sayles' original screenplay.

Lone Star Contains examples of:

  • Accomplice by Inaction: A recurring motif in the flashbacks is how Hollis is present while Wade is killing or extorting people, not really helping him, but not doing anything to stop him either. Eventually, he can't take any more of this and shoots Wade to keep him from killing again.
  • Advertised Extra: Despite being in many ways the central character around whom the whole story revolves, Buddy has around ten minutes of screen time in the 135-minute movie.
  • Badass Boast: Buddy Deeds gets one during the flashback recounting his showdown with Sheriff Wade. Wade has his hand on his pistol. Buddy pulls his own from under the table and sets it on top.
    Buddy Deeds: You ever shoot a man who was lookin' you in the eye, Charlie? Whole different story. Now, or later? You won't have any trouble finding me.
  • Benevolent Boss: Sam Deeds, to the point that his senior deputy tells him that the Mayor and Hollis have both approached him behind Sam's back to run for Sheriff in the next election. Sam encourages him to do it, telling him he'd do a good job.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: A white sergeant plans to ask a fellow sergeant, who is black, to marry him. They're both aware of the problems this will cause, but really do love each other so it doesn't matter.
    Mikey: They gonna be cool with you being a white guy?
    Cliff: Pricilla's family think that any woman over thirty who isn't married must be a lesbian. She figures they'll be so relieved I'm a man they won't care.
    Mikey: It's always heartwarming to see prejudice defeated by an even deeper prejudice.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Buddy, to the citizens of Rio County; a young, dashing deputy who rode into town in a car with "too much engine," who ran off the evil sheriff who ruled the county with an iron fist.
  • Bigot with a Badge: Charlie Wade was the sheriff of a small Texas county in the 1950's. He was an unrepentant racist who murdered blacks and Hispanics with impunity. Whenever he came upon a Black or Hispanic person with a gun, whether or not that person was committing a crime, Wade would point his own gun at the person and command him to hand over the gun. As soon as the person's hand was on the gun Wade would shoot him and claim self-defense.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Mercedes looks down on illegal immigrants and makes a point to call border patrol on any. Despite this, she is herself an illegal immigrant.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Half-brother and sister to be exact. Lovers Sam and Pilar are half-siblings; his father had an affair with her mother. Such being the reason why their romance was forbidden — and in the end, it's strongly implied they're going to continue their relationship sexually.
  • Broken Pedestal: Sam always resented his father for his strict upbringing, but as he interviews the "old timers" of the town starts to believe that the legendary Sheriff Deeds was a cold blooded murderer.
  • Cannon Fodder: Athena Johnson says she figures that the U.S. Army has people it needs to fight, and recruits blacks, minorities, and other poor people in general so they can do the fighting instead of white, affluent majorities. She frankly says she's fine with that, because she prefers the order of the military to the chaos outside it.
  • Character Witness: Counteracting Sam's growing distaste over his father's corrupt methods, just about everyone he talks to refuses to say anything bad about the man, especially everyone who survived the reign of Charlie Wade.
    Sam Deeds: Did he ever accept cash for a favor?
    Otis Payne: (hesitant) I don't recall a prisoner ever died in your daddy's custody. I don't recall a soul in this county; black, white or Mexican, who'd hesitate for a minute before calling on Buddy Deeds to solve a problem. More than that, I wouldn't care to say.
  • Disappeared Dad: Otis to Delmore, and to a certain extent, Delmore to his own son.
  • The Dreaded: Charlie Wade. Anytime he walked in a room, people froze and wondered if they were the next one Wade was going to shoot.
    Ben Wetzel: I remember, Charlie Wade come to my daddy's hardware store once. I was just a little boy. And I heard stories about how he shot this'un and how he shot that'un. The man winked at me, I peed my pants. He winked at me.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sheriff Charlie Wade. He walked tall, always kept his uniform clean and sharp and knew everybody in the county by their first name. He was also corrupt as hell and though he "took care of his boys," if you didn't do what he said, when he said to do it he'd show you the underside of his boot. If he wanted you out of the way, he'd send you to jail, where you may or may not live to see trial. Get him really annoyed, he'd just search you, and ask politely to show him any weapons you might be carrying... then gun you down with a wink as you "went for a piece."
  • Flashback: Much of the story is revealed in this fashion, with a conversation in present-day Rio County turning into a voice over as the camera pans to one side, showing the same location 40 years before.
  • Follow in My Footsteps:
    • Twenty years after running away from Frontera, Sam Deeds returns to his hometown and becomes the new Sheriff of Rio County.
    • Delmore Payne expects his son to go join ROTC, go to West Point and be a career soldier like himself. His son doesn't want any of it, which he accepts at the end.
  • Foreshadowing: After discovering Charlie Wade's body, Sam visits an elderly Hollis Pogue to ask him if he thinks Buddy killed Wade. Hollis is sitting in a fishing boat during the conversation and says, "Hey, look at all this will ya? Tackle, boat... All just to catch a little ol' fish minding his own business down at the bottom of the lake. Hardly seems worth the effort, does it, Sam?" Hollis was the one who shot Wade.
  • First Guy Wins: Despite being married to other people, Sam and Pilar have never gotten over their teenage romance in which they lost their virginity to each other.
  • Framed for Heroism: Buddy Deeds, a deputy who stood up to the crooked - and deadly - Sheriff Wade, becomes a local hero after Wade's disappearance 40 years ago. The community doesn't know - or care to know - how it happened, they're just glad that Wade's gone. Deeds builds on that reputation as the replacement sheriff, who develops a reputation for questionable (but effective) under-the-table deals to keep the peace.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The shooting in Otis' bar happens because Shadow, an old boyfriend of Athena's, sees her dancing with Private Graves and goes crazy.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Hollis Pogue meekly stood by and watched Sheriff Wade terrorize Rio County for years, all the while taking his payoffs and keeping quiet. He credits seeing Buddy stand up to Wade as the reason he was able to shoot Wade when Wade was about to kill an unarmed man he'd just beaten to the ground.
  • I Am Not My Father: Sam resents any implications that he is similar to his dad in any way. Inverted in that pretty much the entire town agrees, wishing collectively that Sam was more like their beloved Buddy Deeds.
    Sam: Mrs. Bledsoe? I'm Sheriff Deeds.
    Mrs. Bledsoe: Sheriff Deeds is dead, honey. You just Sheriff Junior.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Danny Padilla is a small-town equivalent. He works for a local paper and has spent a great deal of time uncovering the truth about local hero Buddy Deeds, including crooked elections, corruption, and the illegal damming of a river to create a lake which destroyed another small town but created lake-front property for the rich people of the county, including Buddy himself.
  • I Was Never Here: A variation - when Chet goes to Otis' bar on the night a shooting happens, Otis comes up to Chet and tells him, "You weren't here tonight, were you?", and instructs him to go out the back so neither of them get into trouble.
  • Loophole Abuse: During the time of the flashback scenes, the county has an ordinance stating that only clubs and fraternal organizations can serve liquor. Saloon Owner Roderick Bledsoe gets around around this by declaring that his bar is a club, and that the membership admission is buying a drink every time a "club member" visits.
  • Meaningful Name: "Buddy" Deeds, whose approach to law enforcement was being friendly (and exchanging favors or deeds under the table to keep the peace).
  • Mistaken for Racist:
    • Buddy (who is white) and Mercedes (who is Latina) both go to great lengths to keep their children from dating each other, ostensibly because of their different races. The real reason? Buddy and Mercedes had an affair, and their children are related.
    • A minor case for the viewers. At a predominately white bar, the bartender sees an interracial couple at a table and comments to Sam that Buddy Deeds would have gone over and given them a warning. "Not because he had it in for the coloreds, but as kind of a safety tip," strongly implying he wished Sam would do the same. Sam does go to the couple's table, but only because he knows they're military and can give him some information about his murder investigation, and race never comes up.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Sam Deeds is an honest, fair-minded Sheriff who treats his staff, the townspeople and even prisoners with decency and respect.
    • His father Buddy Deeds had a reputation for making deals ("trading favors") with the locals but was otherwise an honest cop who treated prisoners fairly and kept the peace.
    • Subverted with the sheriff who came before either of them: Charlie Wade was a bigot, violent, crooked, as worse a thief than any crook in the state, and prone to shooting people In the Back and claiming "self defense".
  • Rescue Romance: Mercedes, twice. Her husband saved her after she got separated from her party during the crossing from Mexico, and she had an affair with Buddy after he gave her money to start her business.
  • The Reveal: Multiple, almost one for each major character.
    • Charlie Wade was indeed shot in the back by one of his deputies, but it was the seemingly spineless Deputy Hollis Pogue that did it to keep Wade from shooting Otis in the back in cold blood. Buddy arrived just in time to see it happen, then to protect Hollis and Otis helped them bury the body in the desert. To make Wade's disappearance seem more credible, Buddy took $10,000 from the county safe and gave it to Mercedes to help the struggling widow after Wade murdered her husband.
    • Mercedes, who constantly looked down on illegal immigrants is revealed in flashback to be one herself, having gotten separated from her group at night in the middle of the Rio Grande, to be rescued by future husband Eladio Cruz.
    • A tragic one when reunited lovers Sam and Pilar discover the reason their parents, Buddy and Mercedes, tore them apart as lovestruck teenagers wasn't because their parents were heartless racists, but because Buddy and Mercedes had an affair which resulted in Pilar's birth... making Sam and Pilar half-brother/sister.
    • Otis Payne, even though he was a Disappeared Dad kept close tabs on his son's progress in the military and bragged about him to whomever would listen, as Delmore learns upon seeing what amounts to a small shrine Otis erected detailing all of Delmore's accomplishments.
  • Rewatch Bonus:
    Roger Ebert: John Sayles' Lone Star contains so many riches, it humbles ordinary movies. And yet they aren't thrown before us, to dazzle and impress: It is only later, thinking about the film, that we appreciate the full reach of its material. I've seen it twice, and after the second viewing, I began to realize how deeply, how subtly, the film has been constructed.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Sam and Pilar's incestuous relationship is a metaphor for the Anglos and Latinos learning to be closer in Texas.
  • Running Gag:
    • "Your mother was a saint."
    • "In English, Enrique!" from Mercedes.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Many of Rio County's problems center around this, with Sheriff Wade in the 40's and 50's, followed by Buddy Deeds, up to Hollis Pogue and the current mayor of Frontera.
  • Secret Other Family: One of Buddy's many secrets.
  • Self-Defense Ruse: Charlie Wade, a racist and corrupt sheriff, did this routinely. Whenever he encountered a black or Mexican man with a gun, whether or not that man was committing a crime, he would point his own gun at the other man and order him to hand over his gun. As soon as the other man's hand touched the gun Wade would shoot him and claim self-defense.
  • Shadow Archetype: Hollis for Buddy. Both are sheriffs who break the rules. However, Hollis is despised by everyone and has no moral quandaries while Buddy seeks to do the right thing.
  • Small-Town Tyrant:
    • A classic example in Charlie Wade. He was wholly uninterested in any of the town's small-time criminal operations unless they weren't letting him in on the proceeds; if they weren't, he would extort, intimidate, beat and murder his way to a cut of the action, if he didn't just do it anyway to get his racist jollies. His corruption and sadistic bullying ensured that not a single person — white, black, or Mexican — missed him after he was gone.
    • Played with in Buddy Deeds. Despite his sterling reputation, he was involved in quite a few shady or illegal activities, including backroom politics, rigged elections, infidelity, and using prisoners as unpaid labor on his home renovations; most notably, he evicted the residents of the small Mexican town of Perdido and built a dam to create lakefront property for wealthy Frontera citizens, himself included. Many of the townsfolk either seem unwilling to reckon with Deeds' dark side, or rationalize that, for all that, he still wasn't as bad as Charlie Wade.
  • Spicy Latina: Pilar invokes this when discussing another teacher's interest in her. He's a white man who apparently goes for "hot blooded latinas," which is a stereotype Pilar apparently does not believe in.
  • Surprise Incest: Star crossed lovers Sam and Pilar are revealed to be half-siblings; they shared the same father. By the time they find this out, they have already consummated their relationship and still stay together after the revelation. It's a short, calm discussion where Pilar mentions that she can't have any more children; the whole conversation plays out where the question of if they should continue their relationship is never brought up, they're simply talking through details to ensure they can continue said relationship.
  • Token Good Cop: Several flashbacks show Buddy Deeds as a brave deputy who is fed up with how Sheriff Wade is a racist murderer and extortionist and the other deputy, Hollis, is too spineless to stop him. Buddy engages in some corruption of his own after becoming sheriff, but is very much A Lighter Shade of Black.
  • Wham Line: Several, especially in the last scene.
    Pilar: (speaking of her father, Eladio Cruz) He died a few months before I was born.
    Sam: Try a year and a half.
    • Then a moment later:
      Pilar: So that's it? You're not going to want to be with me?
      Sam: If I met you today, for the first time... I'd still want to be with you.
  • Written by the Winners: During the heated PTA discussion over the school's history curriculum, a white mother angrily reminds the assembly that their ancestors "fought and died for this country!" A Mexican father reminds her that their ancestors did exactly the same thing, prompting a white father to baldly state his view that, since the Mexicans lost the war, the white people have earned "the bragging rights."