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Lone Star (Blu-Ray Review)

3 min read
Lone Star header image

Of the many qualities lacking in the current cinematic landscape, perhaps one of the most underrated is that of the novelist-as-filmmaker. For as long as we've had moving pictures, we've had authors in Hollywood—whether “slumming it” to catch a quick cheque a la William Faulkner (The Big Sleep, 1946) or Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, 1944), or, in the case of Stephen King's cocaine opus Maximum Overdrive (1986), tiring of seeing their written work adapted to such varying success. What makes novelist-turned-director (and editor, and actor, and…) such an interesting prospect, however, is the literary quality his features have, and the ways in which his measured visual sensibility speaks to his virtues as a writer.

Released on 4K for the first time courtesy of , Lone Star (1996) is about as good an entry point into Sayles' massive oeuvre as you could ask for. Set in the American-Mexican border town of Frontera, Lone Star is part-revisionist Western and part-neo noir mystery, a film in which each of the townsfolk isn't just a potential suspect for 's reluctant sheriff Sam Deeds, but a fully-developed character with long-held feelings and years of repressed desires. What starts as an unsolved mystery unwinds slowly and deliberately into something far less plot-driven, as the discovery of one skeleton in the desert sands ends up uncovering many more skeletons hanging in closets across town.

But first, the primary skeleton in question. Discovered by two off-duty army sergeants in a disused rifle range, one searching for local flora, the other searching for discarded bullets, it's quickly apparent that this isn't just any set of picked-clean bones. With a masonic ring found near one hand, and a discarded sheriff's badge found a few metres further away (one of several possible meanings for the titular “lone star”), the list of potential victims is short, but the list of potential culprits is large—chief among them, Sam's well-loved father, the deceased Sheriff Buddy Deeds (). Nepotism aside, Sayles is interested in questioning the overlapping histories each person carries within them, whether as a result of their family lineage, their childhood crushes, or their local traditions.

Courtesy of Criterion

The murder itself mostly serves as a means to shuttle Sam between the distinct cultures that call Frontera home, and the inevitable frictions that emerge therein. Between the minority white population, pulling the strings but disgruntled with their lot (“Bad enough all the street names are in Spanish,” groans one particularly red-faced partisan); the town's Mexican lifeblood, some legal, some illegal; the tight-knit African American community, centred on Otis “Big O” Payne's sticky-floored bar' and the permanently displaced Native Americans, operating on the fringes, each time Sam steps foot in a different home, it's as if a new way of life has opened up before him. As Sayles himself observed, “This country was never just one culture; it was a whole bunch of cultures. Being a country is something that you manufacture. And there's some choice involved. It wasn't inevitable; there was a lot of struggling and killing involved.”

If Sayles' novelistic tendencies draw each character into centre frame, however peripheral, it's worth noting that his aesthetic choices don't suffer as a result. Sayles' style is unadorned but assured, each camera movement slow, methodical, and substantive. The harmony found between his script and direction sings most clearly during the film's many flashbacks, with each transition occurring in-frame in a manner that's as unfussy as it is affecting, the passage of time being reverted as easily as you might turn the page in a book. Here the imagined turning of a page is given a literal visual representation; not stylish and overthought, but in tune with Sayles' principles as both a writer and a filmmaker. Needless to say, for those looking for a feature that's as thoughtful in its dialogue as it is in its images, Lone Star is a must.

Special Features

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director John Sayles and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • New conversation between Sayles and filmmaker Gregory Nava
  • New interview with Dryburgh
  • Trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar Domino Renee Perez

Lone Star releases in the UK on February 26th courtesy of Criterion