Lone Star
A sheriffs star shaped badge with the image of a skull superimposed
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Sayles
Written byJohn Sayles
Produced by
CinematographyStuart Dryburgh
Edited byJohn Sayles
Music byMason Daring
Distributed bySony Pictures Classics
Release dates
  • May 10, 1996 (1996-05-10) (Cannes)
  • June 21, 1996 (1996-06-21) (United States)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3–5 million[1][2]
Box office$13 million[2]

Lone Star[3] 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 critical acclaim, with critics regarding it as a high point of 1990s independent cinema as well as one of Sayles' best films. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and also appeared on the ballot for the AFI's 10 Top 10 in the western category. The film was also a box office success, grossing $13 million against its $3–5 million budget.


Frontera is a border town with racial strife among the Tejano, African American, Native American, and Anglo populations, where the Anglo population is no longer the majority. Sam Deeds, sheriff of Frontera, Texas, holds that office because he is the son of recently deceased legendary Sheriff Buddy Deeds. Sam is not a “team player”, however, and Mayor Hollis Pogue and others are considering replacing him. As a teenager Sam hated and rebelled against his tyrannical father, leaving town as soon as he was old enough. Since his return to the town two years prior, Sam has chafed under constant comparison to the inflated reputation of the beloved Buddy Deeds.

The town is enlarging and renaming the local courthouse in Buddy’s honor and proposing the building of an unneeded new prison. Sam is skeptical about the use of Buddy Deed’s name by local business leaders, such as Mercedes Cruz and Buddy's former chief deputy, Mayor Hollis Pogue, to promote projects for personal profit using taxpayers’ money. As a teenager, Sam had been in love with Mercedes's Tejano daughter Pilar, but the passionate relationship was strongly opposed by both Buddy and Mercedes, who took steps to separate them.

After a chance meeting in the present, the divorced Sam and the widowed Pilar, now a local teacher, begin to rekindle their lingering passion, again with staunch opposition from Mercedes who Pilar mistakenly believes objects to Sam because he is not of Mexican American heritage.

Colonel Delmore Payne has returned to town as the commander of the local U.S. Army base. Son of Otis "Big O" Payne, a local nightclub owner and leader of the Black community, Delmore has been estranged from his father since childhood, when the serial womanizer abandoned Delmore and his mother. When a quarrel involving a soldier from the base results in a shooting death at Otis’s club—witnessed by the colonel’s own resentful underage son who is surreptitiously at the club to scout out his grandfather—Colonel Payne confronts Otis and threatens to make his establishment “off-limits.” Otis counters that his establishment is the only place in town where Black soldiers are welcome.

Two off-duty sergeants from the base discover a human skeleton on an old rifle shooting range along with a Masonic ring, a Rio County sheriff's badge, and an expended pistol bullet. Texas Ranger Ben Wetzel tells Sam that forensics identify the skeleton as Charlie Wade, the infamously corrupt and cruel sheriff who preceded Buddy Deeds. Wade mysteriously disappeared in 1957, along with $10,000 in county funds. Buddy Deeds’ big reputation and election as Sheriff resulted from his being widely believed to have confronted the despised Charlie Wade on his corruption and driven him from town.

Sam has always doubted the “official story” of Wade’s disappearance. Despite being warned by Mayor Hollis Pogue and prominent local figures not to poke into events 30 years ago, Sam doggedly investigates the events leading up to Wade's murder. Wade terrorized the local Black and Mexican communities, extorting money from business owners and committing murders by setting up his victims and shooting them for "resisting arrest". In front of Deputy Hollis Pogue, Sheriff Wade murdered Eladio Cruz, Mercedes' husband, who was running a migrant smuggling operation across the border without kickbacks to Wade.

Uncovering secrets about his father's nearly 30-year term as sheriff, Sam discovers Buddy's own corruption, kickbacks, and use of prison labor for personal building projects. Buddy forcibly evicted residents of a small community to make a lake, with Buddy and Hollis receiving lakefront property. Going through old boxes of Buddy’s papers, Sam discovers love letters from Buddy's longtime mistress—Mercedes Cruz.

Sam confronts Hollis and Otis about Wade's murder. Upon discovering Otis’s clandestine gambling operation at the nightclub, a furious Wade ordered Otis to hand over extortion money. Wade was about to use his "resisting arrest" setup to kill Otis. Buddy Deeds arrived just as Hollis shot Wade to prevent Otis's murder. The three buried the body and took $10,000 from the county as an alibi for Wade’s “abscondence”. They gave the money to Mercedes—who was destitute after Wade killed Eladio—to buy her restaurant. Buddy and Mercedes later got involved. Sam decides to drop the issue, saying Wade’s murder will remain unsolved. Hollis is concerned that people will assume Buddy killed Wade to take his job. Sam replies, “Buddy’s a goddam legend; he can handle it.”

Showing Pilar an old photo of Buddy embracing Mercedes, Sam tells her Eladio died 18 months before she was born, revealing Buddy is Pilar's father. Both are appalled over the years of deception and repercussions, but since Pilar cannot have any more children, they decide to continue their romantic relationship, despite the knowledge that they are half-siblings.


Lone Star explores the themes of resentments and secrets of the past that distort relationships between individuals, generations, and whole communities.Through Buddy and Sam Deeds, Otis and Demore Payne, and Mercedes and Pilar Cruz, the film depicts how the past divides fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, affecting the course of their lives.[4] It also explores how legends are used to obscure inconvenient truths. Sam Deeds finds that the father he despises is neither as bad as he has always believed him to be, nor as good as his burdensome legend depicts.[5] On both the personal and ethnic level the film depicts how history creates legends and borders magnify artificial divisions among populations and countries.[citation needed]

Megan Ratner, in an article in Filmmaker Magazine[5] that includes an interview with John Sayles writes:

“In Lone Star, [John Sayles] plays with detective and western film conventions (no one particularly wants Sam to solve the murder, and his interest centers on undermining the town mythology rather than upholding it) to prod notions of good guys and bad guys, of history and legend - and ultimately of America itself.”

In this interview, John Sayles states: “…the story and the border were intertwined. I see that whole area and its cultures as this kind of dysfunctional family. There are all these secrets that go way, way, back. It didn't used to matter what side of the river you were on, but now it's a big deal because of something totally artificial that somebody did. I was thinking about what's sometimes called revisionist history. This country was never just one culture; it was a whole bunch of cultures. Being a country is something that you manufacture. And there's some choice involved. It wasn't inevitable; there was a lot of struggling and killing involved.”

“‘It's in every relationship - racial history, personal history. In all of those histories, you have that question of - how much do I want to carry this? Is [the history] good, or is it possible to say, ‘I'm going to start from scratch? Do I still live my life in reaction to - for or against - my father?’"

The Criterion Collection listing[citation needed] for the film states:

“A keen observer of America’s social fabric, writer-director John Sayles uncovers the haunted past buried beneath a small Texas border town in this sprawling neowestern mystery. When a skeleton is discovered in the desert, lawman Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), son of a legendary local sheriff, begins an investigation that will have profound implications both for him personally and for all of Rio County, a place still reckoning with its history of racial violence. Sayles’s masterful film—novelistic in its intricacy and featuring a brilliant ensemble cast, including Joe Morton, Elizabeth Peña, and Kris Kristofferson—quietly subverts national mythmaking and lays bare the fault lines of life at the border.”



This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (July 2021)

The movie was filmed in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo, Texas.[7]

According to the Texas Film Commission:[8] "Filmed in the Texas border towns of Del Rio, Laredo, and primarily Eagle Pass, Lone Star is hailed as director John Sayles' masterpiece. It was praised for its accuracy in capturing the zeitgeist of the 90's as well as the culture of life on the Texas border at the time."

Ron Canada, who plays Otis Payne is actually 18 months younger than Joe Morton, who plays his son, Colonel Delmore Payne, the hard-nosed army colonel.[9]

“This film makes innovate use of live segues, changing scenes within a single camera shot, while shifting in back and forth through time in the same location.” An example is the scene where a present-day Sam is seen in the same place in present day where he and Pilar have just strolled together discussing their past, and where Sam lingers to recollect a scene that took place on the same spot 23 years before between his 15-year old self and a 14-year old Pilar.[citation needed]

The dilapidated drive-in at the end of the film where Sam reveals Buddy and Mercedes’ relationship to Pilar had to be built at a cost of $50,000. Considering the films’ $3 million budget it was a big expense for use in a single scene. To make the most of the expense, the crew watched the last dailies on the screen.[citation needed]

Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography and framing of images has been compared by commenters to David Lean adapting a 'Zane Grey Western Magazine'. Dryburgh’s composition echoes the cowboy magazines and movies of the 50's.[citation needed]

Mason Daring's soundtrack uses music from a variety of genres to highlight the melting pot of cultures in Rio County. “His original compositions are most suspenseful, making already tense moments all the more emotionally taut.”[citation needed]


Critical response

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 91% based on 138 reviews, with a rating average of 8.7/10. 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."[10] On Metacritic, it has a score of 78% based on reviews from 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[11]

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".[12] "All the film's characters are flesh and blood", Maslin added, pointing particularly to the portrayals by Kristofferson, Canada, James, Morton and Colon.[12]

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".[13]

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".[14] The Washington Post writer Hal Hinson characterized it as "a carefully crafted, unapologetically literary accomplishment."[15]

Retrospective analysis

Two years after release, Jack Mathews of the Los Angeles Times declared it "critically acclaimed and darn near commercial".[16]

In 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".[17]




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


  1. ^ Molyneaux, Gerry (May 19, 2000). John Sayles: An Unauthorized Biography of the Pioneer Indy Filmmaker. St. Martin's Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-1-58063-125-9.
  2. ^ a b "Lone Star (1996)". The Numbers. Retrieved April 19, 2018.
  3. ^ "Interviews with Cast and Director of Lone Star (1996)". Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Retrieved November 17, 2019.
  4. ^ "John Sayles: Lone Star". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  5. ^ a b Ratner, Megan. "Borderlines". Filmmaker Magazine. The Gotham.Org. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  6. ^ "Richard Reyes". IMDb.
  7. ^ Lone Star at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata[better source needed]
  8. ^ "The Border Towns of Lone Star". Texas Film Commission. State of Texas, Office of the Governor. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  9. ^ "Lone Star". Imdb.com. Imdb.com, Inc. Retrieved December 16, 2023.
  10. ^ Lone Star at Rotten Tomatoes
  11. ^ "Lone Star". Metacritic.
  12. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (June 21, 1996). "Sleepy Texas Town With an Epic Story". The New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  13. ^ West, Dennis; West, Joan M. (Summer 1996). "Lone Star by R. Paul Miller, Maggie Renzi, John Sayles". Cineaste. Vol. 22, no. 3. pp. 34–36. JSTOR 41688927.
  14. ^ Hornaday, Ann (June 28, 1996). "'Lone Star' shines brightly". Austin American-Statesman. p. E1.
  15. ^ Hinson, Hal (July 12, 1996). "'Lone Star': Stagnant Sayles". The Washington Post. p. F6. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  16. ^ Mathews, Jack (March 13, 1998). "Sayles Again Goes His Own Way With Effective 'Guns'". Los Angeles Times. p. F14. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  17. ^ Arnold, William (September 16, 2004). "John Sayles' timely political lampoon aims squarely at George W. Bush". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  18. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2016.((cite web)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)