Criterion Review: LONE STAR (1996)

The modern classic by John Sayles is out on BluRay/4K

Chris Cooper in Lone Star, courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Filmed along the Texas-Mexico border, with Eagle Pass standing in as the fictional town of Frontera, Lone Star is one of independent filmmaker John Sayles’ most popular films. The cast, the interwoven stories with a mystery tying everything together, the border setting and the contemporary western feel all make the work as memorable and thought-provoking as it is. The 1996 classic is now out on 4K UHD/BluRay from Criterion Collection with a beautifully restored print; the special features will please any fan of Sayles.

The discovery of a skeleton in a desert leads sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper, Matewan) to delve into his father Buddy’s early career and how that coincides with the disappearance of racist, corrupt lawman Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson). The Deeds father/son relationship is paralleled with the dynamic between that of the Paynes: clubowner Otis (Ron Canada, The Shield) and career soldier Del (Joe Morton, Brother from Another Planet). Elizabeth Peña (Tortilla Soup) and Míriam Colón (The House of the Spirits) fill out the lead cast as Sam’s childhood love Pilar and her mother with more than one secret in her past.

Joe Morton and Ron Canada in Lone Star, courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Peña and Cooper share a marvelous onscreen chemistry. There’s a natural ease between the actors that makes the connection between the two palpable. The framing of their shots together highlights their quiet solitude, like they’re the only couple in the world.

The cast in a Sayles film never disappoints, and Lone Star is no different. A young Matthew McConaughey appears as Buddy and Frances McDormand has a short scene as Sam’s football-obsessed ex-wife. Even in smaller supporting roles, actors such as Clifton James (Cool Hand Luke) and Chandra Wilson (Grey’s Anatomy) deliver notable performances.

This 1996 film, based on an original screenplay by Sayles, is both timeless and of its time. While exploring the central mystery, the work touches on numerous issues and themes related to life in Texas and/or on the border. A parent-teacher meeting about Texas history, which turns into an argument over whose version of history is more accurate, is still sadly relevant decades later.  Immigration, selective histories, assimilation – even how the military depends on recruitment of marginalized communities of color – these themes in Sayles’ work are themes we continue to explore and confront as a nation.

With Lone Star, Sayles creates a deeply layered composition. The attention to detail within the filmmaking is meticulous, from the lighting mimicking sodium lights to the drive-in theater constructed by the production design team to the stories told from memory, staged so they easily flow in and out of the present. For this Texan critic, Lone Star only gets better with each viewing.

Elizabeth Peña and Chris Cooper in Lone Star, courtesy of Criterion Collection.

The 4K UHD + BluRay package from Criterion includes:

  • 4K digital restoration of the film, supervised by Sayles and DP Stuart Dryburgh. The 4K disc is presented in Dolby Vision HDR.
  • an insightful conversation between Sayles and fellow director Gregory Nava (El Norte, Selena) about Sayles’ dedication to independent film and hesitation to make Hollywood movies; the filmmaker drily comments, “It seems to be a mutual decision.” Sayles says he was inspired to write Lone Star after a visit to the Alamo during the filming of Piranha. The two discuss his collaborations with producer Maggie Renzi and actor Chris Cooper. On working with a soon-to-make-it-big actor, the director notes that during filming, “He’s not Matthew McConaughey yet.”
  • an interview with Director of Photography Stuart Dryburgh on how he came to be involved with the film (“I like his politics,” Dryburgh admits about Sayles), filming in Cinemascope in Eagle Pass, and inspirations for the framing of certain shots.
  • original theatrical trailer
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