Set in a small Texas border town where human remains and a sheriff’s badge are uncovered, believed to be slain former sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), dead for around thirty years. Chris Cooper is the current sheriff, Sam Deeds who suspects his famed late deputy father Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) was the killer of the intimidating, bigoted Wade, whom he succeeded as Sheriff when Wade mysteriously went missing after a fight between the two. Everyone else in town hasn’t got a single bad word to say about Buddy as Sam (forever in his dead father’s shadow) tries to get people to open old wounds, and we sense that Sam knows differently about his father. Meanwhile, we meet other members of the racially mixed community; Elizabeth Pena is Sam’s former lover from way back. She’s now a schoolteacher whose more balanced history teachings to reflect a multicultural perspective are raising eyebrows amongst some of the white parents in (the predominantly Hispanic) town. Her wayward son provides the reason for the former lovers to speak for seemingly the first time in years, and things go from there. Ron Canada plays Otis, long-time owner of the only bar in town open to blacks. Otis, interestingly claims to be part Native American, and is somewhat of a historian on Native/African American half-breeds. As a young man (and played by Gabriel Casseus) Otis was kind of a hustler, and now his Colonel son Del (Joe Morton) has recently turned up presiding over a nearby military base. The two haven’t spoken for decades, but geographical proximity makes a reunion pretty much unavoidable. Clifton James plays the elderly town mayor and one of Kristofferson’s former deputies, Frances McDormand plays Sam’s lonely and extremely tightly wound ex-wife, Tony Plana plays one of Sam’s deputies who may run for sheriff if Sam should give the job away, and Chandra Wilson plays a troubled army private whose answer to Del’s question about why she joined the army is eye-opening.
This 1996 offering from writer-editor-director John Sayles (screenwriter of “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “The Howling”, two of my favourite films) plays like a Tex-Mex precursor to “Magnolia” (minus the apocalyptic rain of amphibians and excessive use of the C-word by an A-list star) as it deals with various personalities and races co-existing in a small Texas border town (there’s also a dash of “Chinatown” too).
It’s a flashback-heavy film that mixes racial issues with a murder mystery, and somewhat fractured family relationships. Yes, there’s way too many characters here (resulting in the film being a little unfocused), but this is John Sayles we’re talking about, character is always going to be key. Still, I would’ve excised a story strand or two (The subplot involving Chandra Wilson and Frances McDormand’s bizarre cameo are entirely extraneous) in favour of beefing up McConaughey’s role in particular. I get that the perception of his character was meant to change throughout, but I’m not sure I ended up getting enough of a handle on him, and it frustrated me because all of the other characters seemed well-written. Given Buddy Deeds was a big part of the central mystery (albeit seen entirely in flashbacks), it didn’t seem right to barely feature his character at all whilst focusing on at least a couple of other characters who don’t really matter a damn.
That said, the film is nonetheless never boring, and features several very fine performances, especially Kris Kristofferson at his meanest (and most dangerous), a well-cast Chris Cooper (he’s at his best playing characters with inner turmoil), and veteran character actor Clifton James. It’s also Elizabeth Pena’s best-ever work, as well. I’m not quite so sure I believed world-weary Cooper as the son of Paul Newman-esque McConaughey, nor Ron Canada as the older version of Gabriel Casseus (who always seems to get picked on by racist white people in movies, doesn’t he?), but that’s a pretty minor gripe. It’s a solid and interesting film, but Sayles might’ve employed the services of his editor a bit more. That’s the problem when you are your own editor, I guess. But Sayles earned an Oscar nom for his screenplay, so what do I know?
When it’s on target, it’s really good stuff. I think this one’s more for film buffs and the indie crowd, but there’s some really interesting stuff here about the various generations and ethnicities in town, and some memorable characters. The time and place are seemingly realistically captured, and Sayles definitely deserves credit for making the somewhat unwieldy material fairly easy to follow. It’s worth a look if you haven’t caught up with it already, though a bit overrated in some quarters.