Austin Film Festival 2015: The greatness of ‘Lone Star’ and awardee Chris Cooper

MSDLOST EC013There were no amazing inside stories shared about the movie and no detailed discussions about Texas border politics, but Friday night at the Paramount served as a wonderful reminder that John Sayles’ “Lone Star” is one of the greatest Texas movies ever made.

Ironically, in today’s political climate, I wonder if the movie would even be eligible for tax incentives from the Texas Film Commission. Sayles 1996 film takes a detailed look at the complex personal, social and political dynamics surrounding a largely Hispanic Texas border town. The story is told trough the lens of Sheriff Sam Deeds (an amazingly measured and deep Chris Cooper, this year’s AFF Outstanding Contribution to Film awardee, who was on hand for Q&A). Deeds is tracking a cold case that peels back the layers of mythology surrounding his late father, Sherif Buddy Deeds (steely Matthew McConaughey showing early promise). His investigation uncovers not just a murder mystery but also reveals the fissures that run through multiple generations of several ethnicities of the small Texas town and highlights the delicate social balance of the Latinos and Caucasians in the community. Cooper’s moral compass also shines a light on the accepted levels of unspoken corruption in government and law enforcement, with a gnarly and disturbing performance from Kris Kristoffeson providing the dark counterpoint to Deeds.

The movie, which might not be made today based simply on its slow, thoughtful pacing and deeply humanistic approach to storytelling, unfolds like a staged play born from the oral tradition of Texas campfire tales. That feeling was reinforced when a serious and modest Cooper took the stage following the film and discussed his long history in stage acting.

Cooper worked as a thespian for 15 years before getting his break in film. It was a period of intense training and maturation for which Cooper is deeply thankful. He reiterated several times that young actors should work in the theater before moving to movies, an admonition that had traces of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours of practice being the building blocks of excellence.

A serious and reflective Cooper discussed how Sayles gave him his first film role, in 1987’s “Matewan,” and how they had become dear friends ever since, one of Cooper’s closest in the business. He said that working on the very low-budget “Lone Star,” in which the cast stayed in a Motel 6, was a joy due to his family-like cast members and the amazing script from Sayles, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

“You don’t mess with his words,” Cooper said. “And he can justify every one of them.”

Friday night was a reminder of the raw power of a great screenplay and reinforced (not that it needed reinforcing) why Cooper is such a deserving awardee this year. The man who fell in love with movies as a child while watching “East of Eden” is a true actor’s actor from the old school. A man who prefers art to commerce.

When asked about his (uncredited) role in “Spider-Man 2,” he dead panned, “Those things aren’t really my thing.”

His thing? Working with people like Sayles. The two will work together on their sixth film next year in Washington state.

Author: Matthew Odam

Restaurant critic & features writer at Austin American @Statesman and @Austin360. Austin-born 6th generation Texan. Left-handed.

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