John Sayles's tenth film is one of the most inventive and involving releases of 1996. It is set in a rural southwest border town populated by Anglos, Latinos, and blacks. When the skeletal remains of a corrupt and bigoted sheriff who disappeared in the 1950s are discovered in the desert, Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) begins to investigate the case. He believes his own father, the town's previous sheriff and a legend in his time, may have been the murderer.

Various political, racial, and familial tensions in this small community are also revealed through the experience of an African American officer (Joe Morton), who has returned home to head a military base, and through the personal struggles of a Mexican-American teacher (Elizabeth Pena), who does battle with an angry school board upset over her multicultural approach to the history of the Alamo. Throughout the story, which gracefully moves back and forth between the past and the present, memory is the catalyst for present-day realizations and changes.

This capacious drama has much to say about politics, community, history, families, and forgiveness. Writer and director John Sayles proves himself to be the most adventuresome filmmaker in America — willing to deal with the complexities of ethical decision-making in contemporary society.