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Lone Star (1996)

March 7th, 2008 · 8 Comments

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In “Frontera,” Texas, men collecting ordinance on an old army rifle range stumble upon a human skeleton and a sheriff’s badge. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) suspects the remains are those of Charlie Wade, a notorious lawman who disappeared in 1957 shortly before Sam’s father Buddy assumed the office of sheriff. The reputation of the late Buddy Deeds is such that a memorial is being erected in his memory, but Sam feels that if his father’s legend is predicated on a murder, people have the right to know.

What happened between Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) and Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) changes depending on who Sam talks to, including “Big” Otis Payne (Ron Canada), proprietor of the bar where Wade was last seen alive. Otis’ estranged son – a “full bird colonel” named Delmore (Joe Morton) – returns to town to assume command of an army base there. Delmore would prefer to leave his family past buried, but his teenage son is curious enough to seek his grandfather out.

Sam was elected sheriff on his father’s name, but tells his high school sweetheart Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), “Hell, I’m just a jailer. I run a sixty room hotel with bars on the windows.” Sam still resents his father for keeping him away from Pilar when they were kids, and as he investigates Wade’s murder, actually wants his old man to be the killer. Pilar’s mother (Miriam Colon) is a restaurant owner, and when she’s not calling the Border Patrol on illegals, doesn’t approve of Pilar’s relationship with Sam either.


To solve Wade’s murder, Sam drives to San Antonio to retrieve some of his father’s papers from his “highly strung,” football obsessed ex-wife Bunny (Frances McDormand). Along the way, he stops to talk to a Native American who sells curios on the road near where Sam grew up. He discovers that his father had a mistress, but instead of giving him a name, the Indian shares a story about coming across a rattlesnake in a crate. “Gotta be careful where you’re poking, who knows what you’ll find.”

Production history
Writer/director/editor John Sayles was thinking about Yugoslavia’s ethnic genocide in the early 1990s. Searching for a story that would allow him to explore the conflict between a people’s history and their culture, he came up with a murder mystery set in Texas, “A sheriff trying to discover who killed somebody 37 years ago and the prime suspect turns out to be his own father. He has mixed feelings about whether he wants it to be true or not.” The mystery would then unpeel the layers of society along the U.S./Mexico border.

With producers Maggie Renzi and R. Paul Miller, Sayles traveled to Del Rio, Texas, where he rented a houseboat on Lake Amistad and scouted the region. The original plan was to shoot near Austin in order to accommodate the cast and crew, but the border region Sayles discovered south of Del Rio had the feel he was looking for. The towns of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras – connected by an international bridge that spans the Rio Grande River – became the primary shooting location for Lone Star.


Sayles wrote the script over a four-month period in the fall of 1994 and secured a $5 million budget from Castle Rock Entertainment. He’d written the role of Sam Deeds for an almost unknown actor he’d worked with on Matewan named Chris Cooper. In addition to becoming the biggest commercial success of Sayles’ directing career, Lone Star established Cooper as an A-list star, gave Kris Kristofferson’s acting career its second wind and earned Sayles an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Lone Star owes so much to the pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler that you might need a family tree to map out the relationships between the characters introduced in the course of this 134-minute yarn. But what sets the film apart is the ethnic tapestry of its sprawling cast – Anglo, Mex, Black, Indian – and its mystery, which instead of being a straight forward whodunit, explores how a murder 37 years ago ties people together in the present, whether they care to be related or not.

Criticized by some for lacking a signature visual style, Sayles – who also wrote and directed the independent films Lianna, The Brother From Another Planet and Eight Men Out – distinguishes himself here with the dexterity of his script and cast. Sayles has always been a surgically gifted writer with a moral consciousness and a terrific ear for dialogue, but for this particular film, sustains that narrative mastery for two plus hours. The soundtrack – featuring Tejano, ‘50s R&B and Lucinda Williams – is as freshly minted as the film itself.


Dan Jardine at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Despite Sayles’ weakness as a director, Lone Star is a rich and rewarding exploration of the tensions and attractions between the people of this multi-racial community. The screenplay avoids platitudes and easy answers, and treats the characters as individuals, rather than symbols or idealized stereotypes. This is a story of the Great Possibility, what America COULD be, and what it has lost by not working past its prejudices and fears.”

“With all these characters and all of the flashbacks this could have been the most confusing film ever made, but John Sayles puts it together in an easy to understand, slow moving Texas style that makes everything flow with ease and logic. The Academy Award Nomination that he got for writing this screenplay was well deserved,” writes Margo Reasner at DVD Verdict.

James Slone at End of Media writes, “Lone Star is one of the great ensemble dramas, a rich textured story full of the complexity of life and the bright color of genuine people. It’s a mystery, though not one content to merely see a case to its end, but one of history, ideas, relationships and the secrets people carry to their graves. It’s also a political film, though one that sees beyond polemic, reaching into the daily lives of living, recognizable people, even those most of us would find repugnant.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Crooked officer · Forensic evidence · Midlife crisis · Military · Mother/daughter relationship · Murder mystery · Shot In Texas · Small town

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Mar 9, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    I had to carefully skim through since I shamefully haven’t seen this, but I’ve added it to my Must See list – thanks!

  • 2 Rick Olson // Mar 9, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    “Lone Star” is my favorite Sayles. I just saw his latest, “Honeydripper”, at a screening here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with Say;es and Renzi in attendance.

    Welcome to the Lamb!

  • 3 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Mar 10, 2008 at 2:30 am

    I loved this movie! It was a complex story, but not hard to follow. It was the first time I saw Chris Cooper in a leading role, and he was great. This movie contains one of my favorite lines, when one of his deputies asks the sheriff where he is going, the sheriff says that he is going to “the other side” (meaning the other side of the Rio Grande). The deputy’s reply: “The Republicans?”

  • 4 Neil Fulwood // Mar 10, 2008 at 5:15 am

    I’m with Rick Olsen – this is Sayles’ best film, period. Can’t understand the critics who carped about the lack of a distinct directorial style. There is one – it’s called understatement. And with the film working on so many levels, two different timelines and embracing so many peripheral characters, showy direction would have been overkill.

  • 5 Chuck // Mar 10, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Wow. Great minds think alike Joe, I just re-watched this over the weekend (motivated by my recent review of Alligator) and was thinking of giving it a good going over on the website. Good work, you get to why the film works without laboring over the nuts and bolts specifics, a wise move for a film that so intricately, and masterfully, maps so many characters. The film held up well for me and while I remembered the territorial concern, I had forgotten just how much emphasis Sayles puts on the gap between parents and children, the relationship between Joe Morton and Big O is particularly heartbreaking. The ending is a legitimate wow, and ballsy.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Mar 10, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Daniel: I’d never come right out and reveal the ending to a movie, but sometimes, the less you know about the story, the better. Lone Star is one of those movies and I hope you enjoy it!

    Rick: I had a chance to see Honeydripper at the AFI Film Fest. Word of mouth wasn’t exactly through the roof. I don’t know if Sayles will ever be able to make a film as accomplished as this one. Thanks for commenting.

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom(!): My favorite line was, “No telling yet if there’s been a crime, but this country’s seen a fair amount of disagreements over the years.” The one you reminded me of was better. If you ever decide to write a blog, I’ll be a daily visitor. Until then feel free to visit and comment as much as you’d like.

    Neil: The style of understatement. That is such a good observation about Sayles. I guess some people feel that if you’re not moving the camera a lot, you’re not a genuine “auteur” of the film. Whatever. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Chuck: If not for your review of Alligator at Bowen’s Cinematic, I probably wouldn’t have posted my article when I did. I’d like to think that these two movies summarize what John Sayles is all about, so thanks for inspiring me with the terrific review at your site.

  • 7 enrique valderrama // Aug 9, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Hello, congratulations for your page..i`d just watch this movie last nigth in tv..was great!!
    Elizabeth Peña feelings put a spell in me..hehehe..she is amaizing..well, i would like know the name of the blues played when Kris Kristoffenson get into the bar and star to kick
    in the face to the ownner of the bar..(was Little Willie John ?) well please letme know as soon as possible regards, Enrique.

  • 8 Jack Wahl // Oct 15, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    Upon Reflection of Ms. Elizabeth Pena’s passing today on 10/15/2014 , I am very sad. I was a fan of Ms. Pena’s film and television work. But the film LONE STAR is my favorite. As young lad in the Texas hill country in the sixties I’ve experienced the cultural rubbing of Anglo-Mex-Black – Civilian- Military and found the story in LONE STAR very much relating. Good Bye Ms. Elizabeth Pena, you’ll be missed greatly.

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