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  • Benjamin May

Lone Star (1996) Review

Sam Deeds is the Sheriff of Rio County, Texas. He lives in the shadow of his father and predecessor Buddy, something of a beloved local legend. After a skeleton is found in the desert with a rusted badge next to it, Sam investigates, certain that he knows to whom the bones and badge belong: the corrupt and cruel Charlie Wade, the Sheriff and scourge of Rio County before Buddy got the job. What Sam doesn't know is how much the investigation will change his life- and the lives of those around him- as long buried secrets are uncovered, reputations re-evaluated and histories reconstructed.


'Lone Star' is a smart, contemporary whodunnit western that is full of twists and turns one won't see coming. Helmed by John Sayles- a triple threat, taking up writing, directing and editing duties- the film is full of sharp dialogue and believable characters, as well as being a genuinely suspenseful mystery story. There is also an undercurrent of social commentary running throughout the picture- with particular regard to class, race and family- that is handled most efficaciously.

The narrative, partially told through flashbacks, rockets along at a fast pace; keeping the audience glued to the screen with attentions held captive. Sayles has allowed for moments of contemplation though; his editing is not overly brisk or brusque, suiting the tone of scenes adroitly.


Stuart Dryburgh's infallible and artful cinematography is really something to behold. His framing of images gives the film the feel of an 'epic,' as if David Lean had adapted a 'Zane Grey's Western Magazine'. His composition echoes the cowboy magazines and movies of the 50's, and you can practically feel the desert heat emanating off the screen because of his efforts.

Dryburgh was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for Campion's 'The Piano,' but his work in 'Lone Star' is arguably the best of his career; and should have gone recognized by the Academy- who instead gave the award that year to John Seale for his somewhat rudimentary work on 'The English Patient.'


Mason Daring's soundtrack and score is as atmospheric as Dryburgh's cinematography, using 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. Dan Bishops' production design is rich, adding an aura of authenticity to the proceedings, as does Dianna Freas' set decoration and Shay Cunliffe's costume design.

The real star of the show is- appropriately- the star of the show: Chris Cooper, playing Sam Deeds. Cooper is one of the most understated actors working today, he disappears into roles like a chameleon of the silver screen. As Deeds, he brings wit, charm and resolve to the character that endears him to the audience immediately. You want his investigation to be successful and for him to find some balance in his life. Simply put: you root for the guy. Cooper made his debut in Sayles' powerful 'Matewan' in 1987, and the two have worked together numerous times (most recently on the hilarious 'Silver City' and 'Amigo'); 'Lone Star' may be their most entertaining collaboration.


The supporting cast are routinely excellent, from Elizabeth Peña as Cooper's love interest to Clifton James as the mayor and LaTanya Richardson as a young, confused soldier. There are two that are truly special, however: Ron Canada and Kris Kristofferson. Canada plays an embittered bar owner who never had a relationship with his straight-laced son, very well played by Joe Morton. Canada's layered, complex performance is one of much realism and depth.

Kristofferson plays the villainous Charlie Wade and clearly loves getting to play the bad guy for once. He struts around with a sinister gleam in his eye and an ever-present menacing grin, like an evil John Wayne for modern times. It is without question the best role he ever had and one of his finest performances as an actor.


'Lone Star' is a film that has a lot to offer. It is a delightful cocktail of a western, a whodunnit and a romance, featuring barbed social commentary and an exploration of family and fatherhood. To say it's Sayles' magnum opus would not be unfounded. A line from Kristofferson comes to mind when thinking about the film and its' characters: 'He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.' In the world of 'Lone Star', they're all walking contradictions; and the film is a remarkable piece of fiction.

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