On Wednesday, October 15, Latino-Review broke the news that actress and director Elizabeth Peña has died. She was 55. A longtime TV and film actress her credits include Rush Hour, Jacob’s Ladder, The Incredibles, La Bamba, The Brothers Garcia, Modern Family, and Matador. But it is Peña’s Independent Spirit Award-winning role in Lone Star that first comes to my mind in hearing about her untimely death.
Written and directed by John Sayles, Lone Star is a decades-spanning mystery drama set in a small border town in Texas. The ensemble cast reads like who’s who list of under-appreciated actors including Kris Kristofferson, Míriam Colón, American Beauty‘s Chris Cooper, Scandal‘s Joe Morton, Fargo‘s Frances McDormand, Ugly Betty‘s Tony Plana, Grey’s Anatomy‘s Chandra Wilson, and the McConnaissance himself, Matthew McConaughey.
Premiering in 1996, Lone Star is as relevant as ever: police corruption, national/local political tensions, race relations, nepotism, and immigration all factor into the film that at its heart is about people. The ensemble movie takes its time to build the world, characters, and dynamics in the way prestige television dramas do today. See: Breaking Bad.
The murder mystery at the heart of the plot is really an excuse to delve into the history of Perdido County, Texas, history that directly informs how the next generation lives their lives. For instance, Sheriff Sam Deeds (Cooper) and teacher Pilar (Peña) once had a passionate high school love affair, only to be separated and forbidden to be with each other by their parents. Now as adults, will they rekindle their relationship so many years later? Or, take Colonel Delmore Payne (Morton), who moves into town to decommission the local military base. Or is it to establish a relationship with his father who abandoned him and his mother when he was young, local nightclub owner and beloved community figure, Big O (The West Wing‘s Ron Canada)?
Despite the film’s status as a prestigious, serious indie, I still fangirl the crap out of it. (Hey if Fargo can have legions of fanboys, why not Lone Star?) McConaughey may be young and gorgeous in the movie’s flashback sequences, but it’s Cooper’s soft-spoken, good-hearted Sheriff Sam Deeds that I fall for every time I watch the film. He’s adorable and awkward and angsty and GAH. He’s great. Peña is a vision as history teacher Pilar. Her history lesson scene detailing Texas’ violent history is a nuanced, radical argument for approaching the past from all perspectives, not just that of the victors. As a history buff often turned off by overly broad descriptions of historical events, Pilar is obviously my favorite character. That she is a Latina who isn’t mired by gross stereotypes and played with such authenticity and heart are added bonuses.
And who doesn’t love Joe Morton? Answer: No one. Everyone loves Joe Morton.
I won’t spoil the surprise twist. All I will say is that it floored me in a way many movies don’t surprise me anymore. It’s simultaneously weird, disturbing, beautiful, and believable. Sayles plays (and preys) on individual preconceptions and prejudice the viewer brings to the story, flipping expectations on its metaphorical head.
The first time I saw Lone Star was in college during Emanuel Levy‘s American Independent Cinema class. I loved Film Studies, but I’ll be the first to admit that sitting in the cushioned seats of the Lifetime Screening Room in the dark with four hours of a night’s sleep, I may have dozed occasionally during classroom movie screenings. Okay, more than occasionally. But I would almost always watch the movie later. Okay, less than almost always.
I stayed awake to watch Lone Star. The sweeping camera transitions transcending time and space, the ominous image of a skeleton found by an Army base, and Cooper and Peña’s magnetic chemistry kept me engaged from the start. The nuanced discussions of race (Shocker! Race isn’t just about black and white!), depictions of how childhood events reverberate through adulthood, and illumination of the seedy underbelly that lies beneath every town in America (and Mexico) kept me riveted through the end.
For a glimpse at Peña’s talent, a masterful example of ’90s American indie cinema, or just a peek at pre- rom com, up-and-coming McConaughey, check out Lone Star.