John Sayles and negative capability

I’ve been re-watching Lone Star.

We talked about it last month, and this past week I’ve been re-watching it. There are a lot of threads in it, that weave together throughout the movie, so there’s a lot to keep track of. There are some things I don’t think I caught before.

To remind or inform you of the core story: there was a murderous corrupt sheriff in the Texas border town where the story takes place named Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson). His deputy Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) challenges Wade, and when Wade starts to threaten him, Deeds threatens to expose his corruption. Wade disappears a few hours later (in 1957), and Buddy Deeds is the next sheriff. About 35 years later a skull is found on an abandoned firing range outside of town, with a sheriff’s badge nearby; naturally it’s Charlie Wade. Buddy Deeds has recently died and his son Sam (Chris Cooper) is the sheriff. Sam was alienated from Buddy but everyone else sees Buddy as a hero. Sam uncovers a lot of Stuff while investigating the murder.

Here’s what I don’t think I caught before. When Buddy challenges Charlie Wade and then threatens to expose him, at the start of the movie, the item he threatens to expose is a county road project from which Wade skimmed 2/3 of the funding.

Much later, after many crisscrossing threads and overlapping conversations, someone tells Sam about an old controversy in which a lot of Mexicans were displaced by developers of a land parcel next to a lake, and that Buddy wound up owning a lakefront property at 1/3 of the market value.

See what Sayles did there?

The other artfully planted pair: there’s another flashback to Charlie Wade, in which he’s bullying young Otis Payne in the town’s only bar where African-Americans feel welcome. Wade mentions that he just sentenced a guy to “the farm,” and menacingly asks Otis if he knows why he put the guy in jail. “Somebody wanted a crop picked, I guess,” is Otis’s reply – which is in fact a real thing: there were prison farms in the South and they did serve as a substitute for slavery and charges were often trumped up. This enrages Wade, who ends up sucker-punching Otis and then shooting up the bar.

In a completely separate place in the movie Sam is talking to a jail inmate who is tidying his office, pointing out that if the inmate quit growing loco weed he would get more fresh air. The inmate mentions that Buddy had arrested him years before for having a still. “I wouldn’t think he’d bother with that,” Sam says. “He was afraid I’d poison people,” the inmate says. Then the inmate talks about what a wonderful person Sam’s mother was – she gave him the nicest lunches when he was building their patio. “Better than what they gave us here in the jail,” he adds. There’s a little pause and then Sam says “You worked on our patio while you were doing time?” Sure, the inmate says, it was much better than sitting in jail.

See what Sayles did there?

Buddy Deeds was actually quite corrupt, in ways that parallel the ways his predecessor was corrupt, and yet, Charlie Wade was so horrendous that Buddy seemed like a great guy in comparison. Or, to look at it another way, Buddy was quite corrupt but he was also a good sheriff in many ways. Or both. It’s left open.




  1. Al Dente says

    I liked this movie both as a psychological look at various characters and as a murder mystery. Both parts intertwine which improves each of them.


    Buddy being corrupt but highly regarded lets his son not charge the actual murderer.

  2. says


    His decision to drop it isn’t entirely credible; that bit is too rushed, I think. But then again the case is nearly 40 years old, and Wade was himself a serial killer. I don’t see a local prosecutor getting excited about pursuing the case.

  3. luzclara says

    Good analysis! I’m going to rewatch it pronto! Then I’m going to rewatch Hombres Armados/Men with Guns. Given the bad shit that constantly happens in Mexico. (Although Hombres Armados is set in an un-named country that is Guatemala). Man I love John Sayles.

    Then we should all watch Brother from Another Planet!

  4. luzclara says

    Damn auto-correct, it should say that I am going to re-watch Lone Star. Not Re-match Ophelia’s analysis. . .

  5. Great American Satan says

    Never seen it. I followed le wikipedia link, noticed the excellent and beautiful Elizabeth Peña was in that movie, and found out she died just last month from alcohol-related cirrhosis. ;_;

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    Odd. I didn’t remember the specific scenes you mention (saw the film some years back) but the overall atmosphere of corruption, hanging over Sam and Buddy permeated everything.

    Thought about the film again when I read of Elizabeth Peñas death a week or so back.

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