Shubha Ghosh, Love and Dead Hand Control At the Border @ShubhaGhosh @bfastallday
Love and Dead Hand Control at the Border
Lone Star (1995) is one of my favorite movies, and I was lucky to have the chance to talk about it briefly with Christy Lemire and Alonzo Duralde of Breakfast All Day, a highly recommended movie review podcast. Information about following Breakfast All Day and supporting their Patreon is provided at the end of this blog post.
Lone Star is set in the fictional Texas border town of Frontera where the stories of three families become intertwined when human remains, complete with a Free Mason ring, a sheriff’s badge, and a bullet hole in the skull, are discovered in the desert by two Anglos from the local military base. The remains are those of Charlie Wade, the former sheriff of the town who mysteriously disappeared about forty years earlier. With the discover of the body comes the suspicion that Charlie Wade was dispatched by his deputy, Buddy Deeds, who became sheriff after Charlie supposedly embezzled country funds and skipped town. Did Buddy kill Charlie and steal the money himself? Was the town’s love for Buddy and fear of Charlie justified if the beloved sheriff was a murdered and embezzler? Or does any of this history matter for the contemporary citizens of Frontera?
Making these questions more compelling is that the current sheriff, Sam Deeds, has to investigate what his father may have done. Sam has just come back into town after his father’s death and a failed marriage, and these new questions confound whatever baggage he seems to have accumulated from growing up in his father’s shadow. While Sam investigates, he also rekindles a long-stifled romance with Pilar Cruz, with whom Sam had a high school relationship, policed and ultimately forbidden by Sheriff Buddy Deeds. Pilar, in turn, has to deal with the matriarch Mercedes Cruz, longtime owner of the main cantina in town, who voices a suspicion of “illegals” as strong as that articulated by the local anglos, who complain about how the town is changing. Meanwhile, over at Big O’s Bar in the African-American part of town, Otis Payne, owner of the bar for over forty years, tries to connect with his son, who has come back to town to command the local military base as it is in the process of being closed down, and his grandson, curious that the local bar owner, as cool as his father is rigid, is his grandfather. All three of these stories converge throughout the movie as the mysteries of Charlie Wade’s murder and the Pilar-Sam romance are resolved.
Some spoilers now follow. When I first saw Lone Star in the Embarcadero Cinema in 1996, a few months before I start my law teaching career, I picked up on Chinatown (1974) vibes: mysteries that shape the origins of a town with strong shades of corruption and criminality. These vibes were undercut by the contrasting settings, a provincial Texas border town rather than a burgeoning California urban center, Lone Star unfolds as a more personal, multi-family drama in contrast to the paranoid chic of Chinatown. But the two films resolve with themes of incest. In Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray, we learn in violent fashion, has been protecting her sister-daughter from the corrupted clutches of the evil Noah Cross, her father seeking to perpetuate the pattern of incest while raping the Southern California desert. Noah Cross wins. In Lone Star, the theme of incest emerges again at the end with Sam’s discovery that he and Pilar are half-brother and half-sister. Pilar was the product of a long-standing affair between Buddy Dees and Mercedes Cruz. Sam’s father was blocking their relationship because of the incest. Lone Star ends with Sam and Pilar struggling with how the secrets of the past impedes their rekindled and consummated romance.
Incest plays a different role in Chinatown and in Lone Star. In one, incest represents pure evil, a rape of a daughter by her father. In the other, incest is a forbidden love, a metaphor for the intermingling of cultures and the barriers that separate people. At the end of Lone Star, we witness Pilar trying to negotiate the situation. “I can’t have kids,” she tells Sam. “If that’s the purpose of the rule.” Legal prohibition of incest, she reasons, makes no sense if children cannot issue. Consensual relations, presumably, also calls the legal prohibition into question. The lovers’ quandary, set forth as the film fades to black, continues the negotiation of barriers and boundaries that informs the entire movie. People may come together, seemingly overcoming social and legal restrictions, as the past threatens the newly found freedom. How we negotiate traditions, the past, the taboos is the only persistent question. “Forget the Alamo!,” Pilar tells us in the last line of the movie: forget the past, look to the future.
I have watched Lone Star every few years since 1996. Scholarship on the film, such as the highly recommended article by Professor Margaret Montoya, deepened my appreciation for the movie. How the characters in Lone Star negotiate social protocols exemplify how popular culture intersects with law. As a representation of the police through three generations of law enforcement, Wade the law and order tyrant, Buddy the reformer, and Sam the sheriff navigating and uncovering past corruption, Lone Star reminds us of the complexity of law enforcement as it responds to political power and social needs. By showing us three generations of three families, Anglo, Latino, and African-american, Lone Star teaches us what families have in common within a segregated social order. And Pilar and Sam’s intimacy blocked by taboo and law depicts how human connection is possible but also constrained. Rewatching and thinking about Lone Star was one opportunity the Lockdown allowed, especially as its themes played out in the political battles of 2020: law enforcement corruption, xenophobia, and the corrosive result of social distancing.
Discussing this movie with Christie Lemire and Alonzo Duralde was a treat. Alonzo was the least enthusiastic about the movie. For him, the unfolding of the story was mechanical. But he, agreed with us about the power of the ending, especially Elizabeth Pena’s performance as Pilar. Christy reminded us of other great films by director John Sayles, Matewan and Eight Men Out, other movies about history, corruption, and freedom. Enjoy the discussion and for those interested, I highly recommending following Christy and Alonzo on their YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/@BreakfastAllDay) and through their Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/bfastallday), both excellent sources for keeping up with movies.
 See, e.g., Tatjana Hörnle, Consensual Adult Incest: A Sex Offense?, 17 New Crim. L. Rev. 76, 76 (2014)
 See Margaret E. Montoya, Lines of Demarcation in A Town Called Frontera: A Review of John Sayles’ Movie Lone Star, 27 N.M. L. Rev. 223 (1997)
Shubha Ghosh is Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director and Founder of SIPLI, Ghosh works closely with the College of Law’s Innovation Law Center. He serves on the Board of Editors of Hedgehogs and Foxes.