Chris Cooper plays the Sheriff who is investigating the death of the former Sheriff Charlie Sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) who he starts to believe was killed by the other former Sheriff the late Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who also happens to be his father, and treated with such reverence by the town people. Cooper plays the role of the rather tight lipped Sheriff, although unlike the usual quiet Sheriff it is more than a little heavily implied that Sam Deeds is not especially good at his job, nor is he an especially comfortable man in the job. Although that is the basis for most of his actions in the film Cooper still plays the Sheriff often in the quiet observer who takes his time, and takes it very quietly to find out exactly what had happened in the past.
Cooper really is only barely lead as the film does jump around from story to story, and Sam is merely one of those stories although the most important one in terms of the film's structure. On the surface Cooper seems right for the part as he carries a quiet conviction well, and does well to portray that simple morality of his character. He is as well good in basically abridging some of the flashback scenes as he goes from person to person trying to find out what exactly happened all those years ago. Cooper remains solid enough in bringing back every scene with that reflective expression but he never makes the emotion that palatable here. He is fine for the most part in being the Sheriff but problems arise though once it becomes evident that Sam is suppose not be cut out for the job.
There are more obvious moments to show his discontent such as the brief moments where Sam lashes out which Cooper handles well enough as they are outbursts fitting for the reserved man, but I don't know the film consistently says from the very beginning that Sam just is not cut out for the job. Cooper frankly fits the job too much, and that could have worked if there was a slow decline for him , but the films acts as if he's not good enough the whole time. Unfortunately the film just constantly says this rather than really showing it. The film would have greatly benefited if it actually had a scene where Sam had a handle a situation as Sheriff actually, something they did do for Nick Nolte's character in Affliction, but here they just keep saying and we never really see it why.
The idea of Sam's inadequacies is mostly Sayles's fault, but Cooper does not really sell the idea particularly well either. Cooper maybe should have played the part in a somewhat less introverted way to begin with because he only really seems competent enough with his manner as the Sheriff, in fact I would think he had been doing a fine job if the film did not say over and over again that he wasn't cut out for it. Chris Cooper's performance here is fine for the most part in that I would never say he was ever bad, but I do feel his work was a misstep at the point of conception. In fact the usually withdrawn Cooper may have been more suited for the legendary Buddy, and the more extroverted McConaughey should have played Sam(although he does more than just fine as Buddy).