John Sayles’s Long Star (1996) is a movie about what Nietzsche called the tyranny of history, or, as the character of Wesley Birdsong (played by Gordon Tootoosis) suggests, about the struggle that faces those people struggling to forget an old name, literally and metaphorically, in order that they might learn a new one. It is a film, in other words, that despite its sleepiness takes on an issue of epic importance as it explores with unflinching intelligence and open-mindedness the lines and borders that cut wide and frequently destructive paths across individual lives.
On the one hand, a vibrant and richly detailed history of Frontera, Texas, a small and intensely-corrupt town that straddles the cultural, economic, and psychological border with Mexico, this film is, on the other, a profound anti-history, a dismantling of the easy binaries that we have traditionally secured at the center of a collective understanding of the past. As the character of Otis Payne (Ron Canada) states without equivocation, this is a film that focuses on the dynamics of the border itself, of living in a world in which easy divides collapse into a kind of post-modern re-imagining of the potentialities of living a border life.
As Payne suggests: “It’s not like there’s a line between the good people and the bad people. It is not like you’re one or the other”; put simply, living on the border leaves individuals living, ultimately and passionately, in a world distanced from the easy answers, the stable questions, and the knowable, comfortable horizons of the familiar. These are characters trapped perpetually on the liminal, on the threshold of one emotional state or another, of one epistemological condition or another, and, inevitably throughout the film, of one moral dilemma or another.
The impetus for this penetrating dance along border life erupts full force for the townspeople with the unearthing of the remains of Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). A symbol of the town’s racist and casually corrupt past, Wade’s decomposing body establishes a kind of trajectory for the varied border-crossings that accrete during the course of the film, most notably for the current sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), whose own father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey), was Wade’s premier deputy.
But as Sam’s investigation begins, so, too, does his inability to dance the fine lines that he needs to in order to keep his intensely compartmentalized life (his border-less life) in tact.
Even moving barely below the surface of this historical case (buried in the past, Wade was also murdered in the past) soon opens outward to include other stories of other “pasts” that Sam cannot anticipate and, more tellingly, cannot keep from bleeding over into his current investigations, most notably the history of racial discrimination (against blacks and Hispanics, especially) that implicates all members of the town; the troubled memories that Sam still carries with him as the son of the infamous Buddy Deeds; and the emotional repercussions of his “reunion” with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), his first love but also a love that is bordered off (or so society is led to believe) by the moral and genetic taboos placed on such relationships.
Or is it? In such a relativist borderland as Frontera, even this intense stricture can be skirted as simply, it seems, as agreeing that it doesn’t matter since no one knows. What goes on in the past stays in the past in this case, or, put in terms with which Sayles might concur, what goes on in the present is actually an un-bordered past rising again through interpretations, tellings, and re-tellings.
If the discovery of Wade’s body makes Lone Star a murder mystery, the Deeds-Cruz relationship turns this into a film that crosses borders in terms of genre as well as in terms of geography and psychology; murder blends readily with romance; the authority of the sheriff’s department crosses over with its own anti-thesis, as Buddy Deeds gradually emerges from the shadow of the past to become the prime suspect in the murder of his former boss.
As the minor character Chucho Montoya (Tony Amendola) underscores in a film that challenges the very idea that any character in any story can ever be seen as minor, as much as this is a film that dances its precarious balance along its various borders, it is also a film that dismantles the very nature of border-ness. Nowhere is this more clearly articulated than in a scene in which Montoya challenges the younger Deeds’s faithful belief in the lines that serve as the defining characteristics of borders:
Chucho Montoya: You’re the sheriff of Rio County, right? Un jefe mui respectado.
[Drawing a line in the sand] . Step across this line. You’re not the sheriff of nothing anymore, just some tejano with a lot of questions I don’t have to answer. A bird flying south, you think he sees this line? Rattlesnake? Javelina? Whatever you got. You think halfway across that line they start thinking different? Why should a man?
Sheriff Sam Deeds: Your government’s always been pretty happy to have that line, the question’s just been where to draw it.
Chucho Montoya: My government can go fuck itself, and so can yours! I’m talking about people here. Men.
Borders are made by men and recognized by men, Montoya underscores, but are, in the end, unnatural constructions that serve more as barriers to a fully integrated understanding of the town and of the individuals in it. More importantly, Montoya’s comment implies, it is our individual faithfulness in the stabilizing and restorative powers
All of this flux does not mean that Lone Star meanders aimlessly or that the characters are denied always a kind of peaceful “ordering” to their lives. The fluid editing of the film allows the various stories to flow together almost seamlessly, erasing borders between scenes, between characters, and between past and present. As these final two bleed together, the tyranny lifts ever so slightly. As the characters come to understand that their presents are connected by the various interconnections crisscrossing their pasts, they begin to recognize slowly that it is what they do with this knowledge in the present that means the most.
Life is for the living, not the dead, and life is lived in the present not in fear of the bordered off worlds that find their footings deep in years gone. This does not mean, by any stretch of the bordering lines, that Sayles’s film invokes a grand statement or grander meaning. As the character known only as the Indian Shop Owner observes in a moment of profundity that resonates through the various layers of this film: “This stretch of road runs between nowhere and not much else.” In the end, perhaps that is all that can be hoped for as one dances along the border of his own life.