Starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Joe Morton, Ron Canada, Frances McDormand
Alright, so this film isn't a newie, but it is a good one. It was selectively released in October, but has only just reached my local multiplex. So, along I go knowing absolutely nothing about the film, except
that according to many critics it is supposed to be good. They were right
I have always vaguely followed John Sayles work after seeing Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lianna and one of my all time favourite films Passion Fish. His film are not one particular type, but they always are intelligent, well made pieces with developed, realistic characters. In Passion Fish he took a seemingly cliched plot- tv actress is paralysed and is a bitch of a patient until she gets a new nurse-, but produced a sharp comedy/drama that was a real showcase for the actors.
Here, he has taken a risk in that the stars are virtual unknowns. OK, McConaughey is almost a star, but he is barely in it, Frances McDormand pops up in a small role as a loopy ex-wife, and how many people do you know that are fans of Kris Kristofferson's acting? Actually, Kristofferson is highly effective in a comeback role.
The film opens with the discovery of a body on a disused army firing range. The local sherriff Sam Deeds(Cooper) suspects it is the thuggish sherriff Charlie Wade(Krisofferson)
who mysteriously disappearred 30 years ago. The problem is Sam is sure his dead father and much loved ex-sherriff Buddy Deeds did the deed! The film deals with his attempts to uncover the truth. However
there is a lot more going on. Sam rekindles his romance with high school sweetheart Pilar(Pena), that Buddy and Pilar's mother were so against. We also find out about the local army base
where the body was found. New Colonel Payne(Morton) returns to the place where his estranged father Otis lives, but how is Otis involved in the mystery?
Sayles uses flashbacks to tell the story, and this works very effectively as we see the crooked Sherriff Wade extorting, bullying and killing. As the camera pans across a floor or a road, the action switches. This technique makes the flashbacks seem more real because the people and events change but the places don't. This gives us our anchor to the 'reality' of the present day scenes.
The script also by Sayles, is excellent. The characters are many but, all are wonderfully drawn. Even minor characters seem real.
I suppose there were budgetary constraints, or maybe Sayles didn't want big stars, but the lack of a star probably accounts for the small business this film has done so far. Audiences like to see people they know. The actors do well enough here, but Chris Cooper, while perfectly fine, is a bit dull for the lead character. Elizabeth Pena is a bit brighter, and actually Krisofferson is excellent. He usually comes across as likeable in films, but here he is threateningly nasty. Someone describes him as having a smile like the grim reaper, and this sums up Kristofferson well here.
You can't help but feel that if Cooper and McConaughey had swapped roles, this film would have had a bit of sex appeal at least. Mainstream studio bosses would have insisted on a name star, probably more graphic sex scenes than the chaste clinches we see here, and also more killings and a big shoot out!
However, it is still one of the best film I have seen recently. Sayles will always remain independant, and probably just out of the mainstream, but hopefully will continue to make intelligent films like this. 8/10.
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