The Best Film on TV this Week

Lone Star (1996, John Sayles)

Have you ever been in a cinema and the film caught fire? Celluloid is very inflammable and a projector gets rather hot. On rare occasions this results in the film actually igniting. And this is what happened when I sat watching Lone Star in a Watford cinema. It appeared as though a large hole was burning through the screen. Of course, this was a trompe l’oeil – the image of a very small burning hole was being projected onto the enormous cinema screen. Quite exciting initially, but ultimately frustrating; it put paid to the screening and I was really getting into the film.

On reflection it’s astonishing that a low-budget, independent film like Lone Star played in Watford at all (albeit for a one-off screening). We were promised that the film would be shown again, but of course it wasn’t and I had to into London to see the film through to the end. It was definitely worth the effort: Lone Star is pretty damn wonderful.

I suspect John Sayles is not a natural film director. Like Woody Allen, Tarantino and others, he strikes me as a brilliant writer who’s extremely intelligent and therefore able to function as an effective director. John Sayles has even been a novelist for God’s sake. Can you imagine Spielberg writing a novel? It’s inconceivable. And so is John Sayles pulling off one of those Spielberg visual flourishes that take in 3 or 4 compositions in one camera move.

So Lone Star’s great appeal is the quality of the screenplay (and the actors delivering it). The genre is hard to pin down – it’s part modern Western, part murder mystery, part character study. Like many other Sayles films it’s also a portrait of community. In this case Frontera, Texas, a town sitting on the border with Mexico. Frontera is made up of a fascinating ethnic mix: Hispanic, white, black, Native American. It also has a cloudy history, one that is slowly revealed to us as the narrative progresses, seamlessly moving between the present and the past.

Lone Star is full of complex, conflicted characters, elaborately interwoven plot lines and extraordinary revelations. The final one of these leads to what Geoff Andrew in his Time Out review called, “…one of the most quietly subversive endings in American cinema.”

Lone Star is showing tonight, 12.30am BBC 2 (Set your video!)

Sam Bowles