Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Sayles|
|Written by||John Sayles|
|Music by||Mason Daring|
|Edited by||John Sayles|
|Distributed by||Sony Pictures Classics|
|Box office||$13 million|
Lone Star is a 1996 American neo-Western mystery film written, edited, and directed by John Sayles and set in a small town in South Texas. The ensemble cast features Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Peña and deals with a sheriff's investigation into the murder of one of his predecessors. Filmed on location along the Rio Grande in southern and southwestern Texas, the film received near-universal critical acclaim, with critics regarding it as a high point of 1990s independent cinema as well as Sayles' best work. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, and also appeared on the ballot for the AFI's 10 Top 10 in the western category. The film was a box office success, grossing $13 million against its $3 million budget.
Sam Deeds is the sheriff of Rio County in Frontera, Texas. A native of Frontera, Sam returned two years ago and was elected sheriff. Sam's late father had been the legendary Sheriff Buddy Deeds, who is beloved by the town, remembered as a unique individual with a great sense of fairness and justice. As a teenager Sam had problems with his father and the pair routinely argued and fought.
Sam is particularly disapproving of efforts by local business leader Mercedes Cruz and Buddy's former chief deputy, Mayor Hollis Pogue, to enlarge and rename the local courthouse in Buddy's honor; he considers it an unneeded waste of taxpayers' money. As a teenager, Sam had been in love with Mercedes's daughter Pilar, but the courtship was strongly opposed by Buddy and Mercedes. After a chance meeting, Sam and the widowed Pilar, now a local teacher, slowly resume their relationship.
Colonel Delmore Payne has recently arrived in town as the commander of the local U.S. Army base. Delmore is the son of Otis "Big O" Payne, a local nightclub owner and leading figure in the African-American community. The two are estranged because of Otis's serial womanizing and abandonment of Delmore's mother when Delmore was a child. Two off-duty sergeants from the base discover a human skeleton on an old shooting range on the base along with a Masonic ring, a Rio County sheriff's badge, and later, an expended pistol bullet, very unusual on a rifle range. Sam brings in Texas Ranger Ben Wetzel to help with the case. Wetzel tells Sam that forensics identify the skeleton as that of Charlie Wade, the infamously corrupt and cruel sheriff who preceded Buddy. Wade mysteriously disappeared in 1957, taking $10,000 in county funds, after which Buddy became sheriff.
Sam investigates the events leading up to Wade's murder. He learns that Wade terrorized the local African-American and Mexican communities, including extorting money from local business owners on a monthly basis and numerous murders where he asks his innocent victims to show him any weapon they might have, to then justify shooting them for "resisting arrest". Wade used this method to murder, in front of Deputy Hollis, Mercedes' husband, Eladio, having discovered he was running an illegal smuggling operation in Rio County without bribing Wade.
Sam also uncovers secrets about his father's nearly 30-year term as sheriff that reveal Buddy's own corruption. He visits Wesley Birdsong, a Native American and a roadside tourist stand owner, who reveals that Buddy was a wild young adult after his service in the Korean War but settled down after becoming a deputy sheriff and marrying Sam's mother; but he reveals that Buddy did have a mistress, whose name Wesley claims to have forgotten. Sam travels to San Antonio, where he visits his marginally mentally ill ex-wife Bunny and searches through his father's things, where he discovers love letters from Buddy's mistress. Otis tells Sam that Buddy's focus was on the county political machine while Wade's focus was on money. The janitor at the sheriff's office reveals to Sam that he worked on Buddy's home while incarcerated in the local jail. A local reporter uncovers that Buddy forcibly evicted residents of a small community to make a lake that made Frontera a popular tourist destination with Buddy and Hollis receiving lakefront property.
Sam confronts Hollis and Otis about Wade's murder. Wade discovered Otis was running an illegal gambling operation at the nightclub, after he had previously warned Otis against running numbers in the club. A furious Wade violently attacked Otis, ordered him to hand over the monthly extortion money, and then was about to use his "resisting arrest" setup to kill Otis. Buddy arrived just as Hollis shot Wade to prevent Otis's murder. The three buried the body and took the $10,000 from the county and gave it to Mercedes--who was destitute after Eladio's recent death--to buy her restaurant. Hollis reveals that Buddy and Mercedes did not take up until some time later. Sam decides to drop the issue, saying it will remain an unsolved mystery. Hollis voices concern that, when the skeleton is revealed to be Wade, people will assume Buddy killed him to take his job, to which Sam states that Buddy's legend can handle it.
Pilar meets Sam at an old drive-in theater where Sam shows her an old photo of Buddy and Mercedes and tells her Eladio died 18 months, rather than "a couple months", before she was born, revealing Buddy is Pilar's father. Both are hurt over the deception but decide that, since she cannot have any more children, they will continue their romantic relationship, despite the knowledge that they are half-siblings.
The film received highly positive reviews. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 94% based on 47 reviews, with a rating average of 8.59/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Smart and absorbing, Lone Star represents a career high point for writer-director John Sayles -- and '90s independent cinema in general."  Two years after release, Jack Mathews of the Los Angeles Times declared it "critically acclaimed and darn near commercial". In retrospect from 2004, William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said that the film was "widely regarded as Sayles' masterpiece", declaring that it had "captured the zeitgeist of the '90s as successfully as "Chinatown" did the '70s".
Writing at the time of release, Janet Maslin of The New York Times said, "This long, spare, contemplatively paced film, scored with a wide range of musical styles and given a sun-baked clarity by Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography, is loaded with brief, meaningful encounters... And it features a great deal of fine, thoughtful acting, which can always be counted on in a film by Mr. Sayles". "All the film's characters are flesh and blood", Maslin added, pointing particularly to the portrayals by Kristofferson, Canada, James, Morton and Colon. Film critics Dennis West and Joan M. West of Cineaste praised the psychological aspects of the film, writing, "Lone Star strikingly depicts the personal psychological boundaries that confront many citizens of Frontera as a result of living in such close proximity to the border". Ann Hornaday for the Austin American-Statesman declared it "a work of awesome sweep and acute perception", judging it "the most accomplished film of [Sayles'] 17-year career".
However, not all contemporary critics were completely positive. While The Washington Post writer Hal Hinson characterized it as "a carefully crafted, unapologetically literary accomplishment", he said that Sayles' "directing style hasn't grown much beyond that of a first-year film student", declaring the director was "stagnant".
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: