Lone Star (1996 film)

Lone Star

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Sayles
Produced by R. Paul Miller
Maggie Renzi
Written by John Sayles
Music by Mason Daring
Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh
Edited by John Sayles
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • June 21, 1996 (1996-06-21) (United States)
Running time
135 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million[1]
Box office $12,408,986[1]

Lone Star is a 1996 American mystery film written and directed by John Sayles and set in a small town in 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.


Sheriff Sam Deeds is the county sheriff in Frontera, Texas. He was born and raised in Frontera, and returned two years ago to be sheriff. Sam's late father had been the legendary Sheriff Buddy Deeds, who is remembered as fair and just. Sam had problems with his father and the pair routinely fought.

Sam is particularly disapproving of efforts by business leader Mercedes Cruz and Buddy's former 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 area's African-American community. The two are estranged because of Otis' serial infidelity and abandonment of Delmore's mother when Delmore was a child. Relic hunters discover a human skeleton on an old shooting range along with a Masonic ring, a Rio County sheriff's badge, and a bullet not used by the military. 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 corrupt sheriff who preceded Buddy. Wade had 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 numerous murders where he asks his innocent victims to dig out any weapon they might have, to then justify shooting them for "resisting arrest". Wade used this method to murder Cruz's husband, Eladio, in front of Deputy Hollis. Sam visits Wesley Birdsong, a Native American and a roadside tourist stand owner, who reveals that Buddy was a wild young adult who settled down after becoming a deputy sheriff and marrying Sam's mother though he 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 to Buddy's mistress.

Sam confronts Hollis and Otis about Wade's murder. Wade extorted money from a young Otis for running an illegal gambling operation in the bar, then was about to use his "resisting arrest" setup to kill Otis. Buddy arrived just as Hollis shot Wade to prevent Otis' 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.

Sam learns that Hollis and Mercedes have recruited his own deputy to run against him in the next election. He decides to not run for re-election.

Sam tells Pilar that Eladio died 18 months, rather than "a few weeks", before she was born. Sam shows Pilar an old photo of Buddy and Mercedes, revealing that Buddy is her 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 movie was filmed in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo, Texas.[2]


Critical response

The film received highly positive reviews, with Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 43 out of 46 reviews were positive for a score of 93% and a certification of "fresh".[3] Two years after release, Jack Mathews of the Los Angeles Times declared it "critically acclaimed and darn near commercial".[4] 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".[5]

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".[6] "All the film's characters are flesh and blood", Maslin added, pointing particularly to the portrayals by Kristofferson, Canada, James, Morton and Colon.[6] 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".[7] 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".[8]

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".[9]




The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


  1. 1 2 Molyneaux, Gerry (19 May 2000). John Sayles: An Unauthorized Biography of the Pioneer Indy Filmmaker. St. Martin's Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-1-58063-125-9.
  2. Lone Star at the Internet Movie Database.
  3. Lone Star at Rotten Tomatoes
  4. Mathews, Jack (13 March 1998). "Sayles Again Goes His Own Way With Effective 'Guns'". Los Angeles Times. p. F14. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
  5. Arnold, William (16 September 2004). "John Sayles' timely political lampoon aims squarely at George W. Bush". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
  6. 1 2 Maslin, Janet (21 June 1996). "Sleepy Texas Town With an Epic Story". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
  7. West, Dennis; West, Joan M. (Summer 1996). Cineaste. Vol. 22 no. 3. p. 34. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. Hornaday, Ann (28 June 1996). "'Lone Star' shines brightly". Austin American-Statesman. p. E1.
  9. "'Lone Star': Stagnant Sayles". The Washington Post. 12 July 1996. p. F6. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
  10. "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19.
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