(director/writer/editor: John Sayles; cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh; cast: Chris Cooper (Sam Deeds), Kris Kristofferson (Sheriff Charlie Wade), Elizabeth Peña (Pilar Cruz), Clifton James (Mayor Hollis Pogue), Matthew McConaughey (Buddy Deeds), Miriam Colon (Mercedes Cruz), Stephen Mendillo (Cliff ), Stephen J. Lang (Mikey), Latanya Richardson (Priscilla Worth), Ron Canada (Otis Payne), Joe Morton (Colonel Delmore Payne), Frances McDormand (Bunny, Sam’s wife), Eddie Robinson (Chet Payne), Gabriel Casseus (young Otis), Beatrice Winde (Minnie Bledsoe); Runtime: 135; Rio Dulce/Castle Rock; 1996)
“This ambitious project is an engrossing and an original work.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer/director John Sayles weaves an intriguing story that is both a mystery and a study about the relationship between the generations and the races. It is set in a small Texas border town of Frontera, where 19 out of every 20 citizens is Mexican. When two soldiers (Mendillo & Lang) are looking at desert plant life in an abandoned Army rifle range they discover a human skull, a Masonic ring, and a corroded sheriff’s badge. It turns out that this is the body of the venal Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kristofferson), who was reported missing 40 years ago. He was a corrupt sheriff who had his hand in every crooked scheme that went on in town and loved to dish out his idea of the law with excessive force. He was unaffectionately known as a ‘bribes ‘n’ bullets’ lawman. When the current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Cooper), learns of the discovery, he thinks that his father Buddy Deeds, the one who became a revered sheriff afterwards, killed him to become sheriff.
Sam gets Hollis Pogue (James), the current mayor, who was Wade’s deputy back in 1957, to tell him again about the confrontation his father had with Wade the night he disappeared and how his dad refused to obey Wade’s orders and Wade threatened to kill him, but Buddy never backed down. The legend got started that, after the incident, Buddy made Wade run away from town because he was afraid his corruption would come to light through Buddy.
Sam had gotten married and then divorced to a manic-depressive rich woman (Frances McDormand), and returned to town two years ago when his friends asked him to run for sheriff. He idolized his father for the first fifteen years of his life, but in the next fifteen years of his life he felt resentment toward him. He learned that his father also made deals with criminals, had a mistress, and received bribes. But people respected him for being fair to them and not being cruel in his enforcement of the law, even his kind of bigotry was not as hateful as under the past sheriff; he only made sure that the races should stick to their own kind, and did not have a grudge against the non-whites. He was the kind of man legends were made of, as all the people liked him.
Sam’s most traumatic moment came when he was a high school student and was dating a Mexican girl Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña), whom he was deeply in love with. His father and his deputy spotted the two of them in a drive-in movie and separated them for good. Sam never forgave his father for doing that, even though by the film’s end we learn why he did it.
Pilar was transferred to the Catholic high school and married someone who died recently. She currently is a responsible high school history teacher, but who causes controversy because she is teaching the course in a way the Anglo-American community feels is distorting their history. She points out that their white heroes, such as Davy Crockett, were also slave traders. She has a daughter who is an honor roll student, but she has trouble from her teenage son, who has rebelled against her and is sometimes in minor trouble with the law.
Pilar’s relationship with her mother (Miriam Colon) is still strained because of their different viewpoints. Her mother owns a very successful restaurant where she hires Mexicans with green cards and treats them harshly, shaking her head that they can’t assimilate and speak English. She has conveniently forgotten how she came to this country as a wetback herself and has now risen to be the town’s councilwoman. When her husband was killed she never took another man, instead she became a bitter woman and put all her effort into the restaurant. Upon seeing wetbacks crossing the lawn of her luxurious ranch home, she calls the border patrol.
The black population comes mostly from Fort McKenzie, an Army post that is on the verge of being closed. The black people’s social life revolves around either the church or Otis Payne’s bar or as Otis so aptly says, most go to both since there is no demarcation between good and evil. Sam will learn in his informal investigation, one in which his Texas Ranger friend is officially running but not trying too hard to discover anything, that Otis was with Wade the night he disappeared. The past also catches up with Otis, as the son he abandoned has become the new colonel (Morton) in the fort. The colonel is a by-the-book military man, with a rigid sense of duty. The confrontations he has with his father are genuinely moving. His character grows as the story allows him to show he is a dynamic person, capable of tender emotions and expressing humane responses, as well as someone who is able to make his own breaks in life and rise from his impoverished position in life all by himself.
This is a slow moving, superbly acted, thoughtful, provocative look at America’s past and where it is now, as seen through the past lives of the main characters depicted in the three ethnic communities. The laconic tone of the film and the strong intellect in the script bring so many other things to the table that the mystery, even though it is followed through and wrapped up, is not quite as important as all the other issues it brings up. The subtle message being that the past must be remembered, but the more important message is that the future must not be blurred by what already happened. That racial conditions have improved in this country but not to the point where each group can freely accept the other, as each feels most comfortable only with their own kind. The blacks have their own bar, as do the whites, while the Mexicans have their own restaurant and cultural needs, which include speaking Spanish. The whites feel like they are being pushed out of their own country, the blacks feel that there should be more of them in town, while the Mexicans feel they should be running things since they are in the majority. But what is important for Sayles, is that things must be allowed to change for the better in a loving way and each group must somehow learn to accept the other. The story challenges race relations, borders, parent and child relations, the teaching of history, government responsibility to its citizens, political corruption, military duty, patriotism, and basically what it is to be an American.
This ambitious project is an engrossing and an original work. There are no predictable and formulaic messages for this great film of the 1990’s. It is one that is done with wit and tact. Everything about it rings with truth, even if it has to break down a few legends to get its point across — proving that often enough, legends are not all they are cracked up to be.
REVIEWED ON 8/19/2000 GRADE: A+