“I don’t know what happens to country.” – Cormac McCarthy
We’ll believe anything of borderlands. Here, narratives of murder and madness play out with little astonishment or awe. These are the lonely places, where cultures meet like tectonic plates, rubbing together until the friction becomes unbearable. Great bursts, ritual exorcisms of violence, are necessary and essential, in order to purge these lands, to release the great tensions of cultural antagonisms. It is a way, in the words of Ishmael, ‘of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation’. American directors, from Huston to Welles to the Coen Brothers, relish the uncultivated fury of the border country, for just these reasons. Here, the ridiculous can become myth.
Lone Star is a different beast. Think Chinatown does Texas, if you must. Sayles is a novelist, and a great one, who took a wrong step somewhere and ended up with a camera. He is concerned not with the possibilities of the border, the potential for great drama, but of actualities and perceptions. Sheriff Sam Deeds’ father was a great lawman. His name is known from Rio County to San Antonio, even in death. But the past will not sit still, and the wind blows hard across the border. A body is found in the wastes, wearing a sheriff’s badge and a Masonic ring. Revelations are unearthed. Sam’s father comes under suspicion for murder. The body in life belonged to Kris Kristofferson, another Hank Quinlan gone to dust. Understandings and things unspoken begin to falter and unravel. Sam rekindles a childhood romance with a Mexican girl, Pilar, forbidden by his father long ago. They lie in each other’s arms, and it feels like it did the first time. Perceptions can change, even if the heart cannot.
Sayles is not concerned with the frivolities of narrative twists and turns, even if they are masterful. His worries are the residues and deposits of history in America, of cultures built upon cultures, the layers of tolerance accumulated and the singular flares of cruelty that disrupt them. He seeks to investigate a society founded on the subjugation of another, squatting on the same ground, and repeating the sins its fathers began in earnest. How can these people, in this town, begin to live together in the knowledge of what has been done? Racism, that institutional disease, has now taken on a post-institutionalized form. It is a shape less clear, less definable, but no less potent. Education has been bastardized to suit the winners. The borders remain, even if those on either side are forced to interact everyday.
Sam Deeds stalks the truth on both sides of the line. If he is not his father, then he is his own form of hero. ‘Blood,’ states an African-American bar owner, part-Indian, ‘only means what you let it.’ The subversive truth, about Sam’s father, about societal prejudice, about Pilar, is finally uncovered. We find that the borders and boundaries are not merely geographical markers, not simply those of nations, communities, individuals, but fault-lines of the spirit and, finally, the heart.
We must choose to remember history, if we remember it at all, in a way that does not asphyxiate our future. We must all, in some way or another, try to forget the Alamo.