My criterion for a five-star movie rating is the desire to watch it over and over again. In some stories, it’s peeling away the layers of a mystery. In others, it’s finding levels of foreshadowing or tracking the development of troubled and complex characters.
In Lone Star, the rewarding experience is the search for the truth. Not the I’m-right-you’re-wrong truth, but the murky truth in the middle. Sheriff Sam Deeds lives in the shadow of his late father Buddy Deeds (almost as good-guy a name as Dudley Do-Right). The Anglo community, now in the minority of this small Texas town bordering Mexico, can hear no wrong about the legendary Deeds, and the same is true of old timers in the black and Latino community, as senior Deeds most famous act was standing up to the ruthless Sheriff Charlie Wade, who brutalized and extorted from the non-white in his jurisdiction.
But now Sam is presented with an opportunity to drop his old man at least a peg or two with the discovery of Wade’s long-decomposed body in the nearby military firing range. The obvious question — what really happened that night after Buddy Deeds told Wade to get out of town, or else? Buddy was no saint. He apparently had few qualms about using his office for personal benefit. And Buddy was, after all, a man of his times. A bartender informs Sam that his father would have given mixed-race couples a friendly warning “for their own safety”, and Sam has vivid memories of how his father broke up his relationship with a Latino girl, Pilar Cruz, now a local schoolteacher.
Whether Buddy was a legitimate hero or just a less corrupt and racist version of his predecessor is not the only question in town. It seems everyone is in a divisive situation. In Pilar’s school, the parents vehemently debate who’s history is right, the white or Mexican version. The local businessmen and politicians are agitated about the local election, with hot-button issues like the closing of the military base and building a new prison. Colonel Delmore Payne, temporarily stationed at the base to prepare for its shutdown, harbors deep resentment for his estranged father Otis Payne, now proprietor of the local bar frequented by African Americans and known as the “Mayor of Darktown”.
The environment frames the polarized feelings of the people with its own contrasts. We see the sparse cactus-filled landscape and then the richly-colored Mexican decor of the the restaurant owned by Pilar’s mother Rosario. The restaurant is filled with workers just recently from Mexico, while Rosario insists that everyone speak English. The elderly lady who calls Sam “Sheriff Junior” is playing a Game Boy. The military officers stationed nearby transition from the formality and coldness of the base to the lively music and dancing at the local bar.
Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConnaughey capably play Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds, respectively, as larger than life characters, but the pleasantly outstanding performances are given by Chris Cooper as the slightly sardonic and mild-mannered (nearly to the point of being morose) Sam Deeds, Elizabeth Pena who manages to be sensual in every role, including this one as a disappointed-with-life mother of two, and Joe Morton as the stiff but perceptibly sensitive Colonel Payne. A brief but lively and somehow simultaneously hilarious and sad appearance is contributed by the versatile Frances McDormand as Sam’s “tightly-wound” ex-wife. She’s obviously a disaster, but she reminds Sam (with no argument from him) that it takes effort from both sides to make a relationship succeed. The truth lies somewhere in between, and while it may be complicated, inconvenient, and perhaps not completely realizable, in that gray area also lies the chance for more understanding and — the reward — a human connection.