Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
July 1, 1996
Lone Star is a movie that does the impossible. In both content and presentation, it's a marvel. Writer/director John Sayles (Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish) seamlessly blends mystery, social commentary, family angst and star-crossed romance. Moreover, he does it in a manner that is quietly daring and as unpredictable as the weather.
Sayles starts off simply. When a couple of off-duty soldiers accidentally find a corpse abandoned four decades earlier, Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper from Matewan) has to do more than simply figure out the killer.
The body is easy to identify. Because of the sheriff's badge found nearby, it obviously belongs to Sam's predecessor, the corrupt and downright evil Charley Wade (played in flashbacks by a terrifying Kris Kristofferson).
Sam's prime suspect is his own not so dearly departed father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey from A Time to Kill). While many of the locals recall Buddy fondly, Sam resents his father's shaky ethics as sheriff and still bears a grudge because of the way his father tried to control his life. In fact, Sam sincerely wishes that Buddy was Wade's killer. Sam's search for the killer leads him and the audience in several unexpected directions.
Sayles uses the tenures of the three sheriffs to show how race relations have changed. The gun point racism of Wade gives way to the more covert segregation Buddy enforced. The tensions still simmer, but now there's division within ethnic groups, and the lines that separate the people of Rio County aren't clear. For instance, Latinos are a majority in the region, but they don't dominate the county politics because they don't speak with a unified voice.
Thankfully, Sayles presents the eclectic cultural scene without descending into a civics lesson. He succeeds because he is able to present his large gallery of characters as individuals.
Even Sayles' minor characters are well drawn, giving his large and able cast plenty room to strut their talents. Still, the leads hold their own. Cooper is a solid as the world-weary Sam, and Elizabeth Peña (La Bamba) almost steals the show Sam's former teenage sweetheart. Keep an eye out for Fargo's Frances McDormand, who is a riot as Sam's football obsessed wife. Don't be surprised if Kristofferson picks up a Best Supporting Actor nomination even though his character is only a skeleton through most of the movie.
In addition, Sayles' creative editing adds a fascinatingly creepy touch. The flashbacks don't dissolve into the present. The camera instead pans into the present, making the past seem more real and immediate.
Up through its genuinely shocking final plot twist (O. Henry would be proud), Lone Star is a challenging and entertaining ride. Sayles never takes the easy way out, and audiences will be grateful ( R). Rating: 10.
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