Lone Star (John Sayles)

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)

John Sayles has made one really good movie after another for over fifteen years without ever quite making a truly great one, and I'm both enormously pleased and a little disappointed to announce that his latest, Lone Star, is -- you guessed it -- a really good movie. As in 1991's fine City of Hope, Sayles deftly juggles numerous characters and subplots, interweaving disparate elements with tremendous skill. (Sayles is a terrific storyteller; he should have been hired to make sense of Mission: Impossible.) This picture is both more and less ambitious than the earlier one; Sayles has limited the number of significant characters while simultaneously tackling a more complex narrative structure, involving multiple flashbacks and the conventions of a mystery novel. The mystery in Lone Star is fairly transparent (at least, it was to me), but it's really not the heart of this sprawling, multifaceted tale; besides, Sayles has another trick up his sleeve. He also has a superb cast: Chris Cooper, who played Matewan's protagonist, is this film's rock-solid anchor, and he's ably supported by Elizabeth Peña, Ron Canada, Sayles regular Joe Morton, and a never-better Kris Kristofferson, among others. Matthew McConaughey is so effortlessly charismatic in his brief appearance that I have no trouble understanding how he managed to land the lead role in the forthcoming John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill, despite being almost completely unknown. (Put this guy in Speed 2 -- he blows Keanu Reeves off the screen.) Only Frances McDormand disappoints; a theatrical actor, she invariably mugs up a storm when not reined in, and Sayles inexplicably permits a characterization that would have been right at home in Raising Arizona, but is dreadfully inappropriate in this otherwise quiet, reflective gem. If, like myself, you're already weary of Mindless Summer Blockbusters (TM), then walk, don't run, to the nearest theater showing Lone Star. (Hey, it's a really good movie, but I'm not gonna ask you to run. It's hot outside.)