This ‘90s Matthew McConaughey Western Is Also a Sharp Crime Thriller


The Big Picture

  • John Sayles’ film
    Lone Star
    challenges the mythologization of law enforcement figures and raises existential questions about history.
  • The film explores the personal journey of sheriff Sam Deeds as he uncovers a larger conspiracy and confronts his past.
  • Lone Star
    combines elements of family drama, neo-noir conspiracy thriller, and Western genres to create a captivating and thought-provoking story.

There are few great American filmmakers who have been as consistently undervalued as John Sayles, a quiet maverick filmmaker whose remarkable deconstruction of quintessential archetypes of “Americana” made him one of the most exciting of the 1990s. Sayles has a fascinating approach to traditional “American” genres, as he tends to deconstruct the facades behind them, yet still celebrates the beauty of the character. Eight Men Out is a baseball film that dramatizes one of the most famous conspiracies within the history of the sport, yet still celebrates virtues such as honor, respect, and loyalty.

The Brother From Out of Space is an “extraterrestrial visitor” science fiction film that analyzes the stigmatization of immigration. Passion Fish takes the “actor reconnecting with their family” story and uses it to analyze the healthcare system. It only made sense that someone as ambitious as Sayles would want to tackle something as “quintessentially American” as the Western genre, and he did so in the brilliant 1996 neo-noir Lone Star. Chris Cooper, Frances McDormand, and a young Matthew McConaughey do some of the best work of their careers in this fascinating, emotional investigation into family legacy and the mythologization of the law.

Lone Star

When the skeleton of his murdered predecessor is found, Sheriff Sam Deeds unearths many other long-buried secrets in his Texas border town.

Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Frances McDormand, Joe Morton

John Sayles

Release Date
June 21, 1996

Run Time
135 minutes

Sony Pictures Classics

What Is ‘Lone Star’ About?

Lone Star is set in the diverse Rio Grande area in Frontera, Texas, and stars Cooper as the newly elected sheriff Sam Deeds. Sam is a native of the area that had previously moved elsewhere, but he was elected in a broad consensus upon his return based on the legacy of his family name. Sam’s father, Buddy (played by Matthew McConaughey in a few brief flashback sequences), had been the beloved sheriff of the community for many years, and was said to have represented the values that every citizen desires: truthfulness, honor, and civility. Sayles has an interesting way of contextualizing figures of law enforcement that have been deified by their communities; to question the legacy of Buddy Deeds is almost like questioning the word of God.

Sam essentially knows that his late father has been memorialized as a local legend whose experiences and career has been mythologized at this point. If he so chose, Sam could sit back and coast off of his surname instead of actually solving any cases or handling any of the responsibilities of the position he was elected to. However, Sam is not lacking in his father’s values, and begins to dig into a case that could fundamentally change his perception of both his family and community. In doing this, Sayles has managed to raise existential questions about remembering history with rose-tinted glasses that are framed through the very personal relationship between a father and son.

Chris Cooper’s Dynamic Performance Lays the Foundation of ‘Lone Star’

Cooper has a gentle, yet commanding nature to his performance that makes it one of his best. Sam is a soft-spoken, compassionate man who conveys a natural warmth to him, but that doesn’t mean he takes his job less seriously. In more ways than he initially realizes, Sam’s willingness to broaden the expanse of his investigations makes him an enemy to some of the higher-ranked officials within the Frontera community. This becomes evident when the skull of the corrupt cop Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) is discovered. Sayles suggests that it’s the first part of a larger conspiracy, and the “no questions asked” attitude that is conveyed without words is subtly terrifying. It’s an effective way of suggesting that there are dormant secrets that everyone has collectively agreed not to share. It’s also a fascinating idea to name a corrupt cop after the main antagonist in the classic Western 3:10 to Yuma, though whether or not this was done intentionally is uncertain.

‘Lone Star’ Isn’t Your Typical Western

The personal nature of the story, and how it confirms Sam’s adolescent abuse, is why Lone Star works as both a family drama and a neo-noir conspiracy thriller. Sam struggles with living in the shadow of his father, as the two had been contentious with each other for many years, and it was their arguments that had led to him leaving Frontera in the first place. He shows great resilience and a sense of bravery in resisting the attempts made by the powerful business tycoon Mercedes Cruz (Míriam Colón) and his father’s chief deputy, Mayor Hollis Pogue (Clifton James), to construct a grand memorial for Buddy. Not only does Sam know that on an ethical level, he must speak out against an unwanted expense, but on a personal level, he knows that his father was not deserving of the accolades thrown at his grave. Sayles uses the idea that this memorial is an effective plot device and a way of symbolizing the mistake of putting faith in a man whose personal affairs can never be known by such a broad area.

Sayles manages to complicate all of the characters that would typically be seen in a classic Western. The Cruz family is the sort of typically vile “evil wealthy family” that a classical gunslinger might have to go up against, but in Lone Star, Sam begins to fall for Mercedes’ daughter Pilar (Elizabeth Peña). The dichotomy between Peña and Colon is deliberately striking. Pilar is a soft-spoken elementary teacher who shows real enthusiasm for helping children. Using her as Sam’s love interest is Sayles’ way of suggesting that children should not be defined by their parents’ legacy. The relationship that he constructs between Peña and Cooper is tender, captured in beautiful close-ups with a remarkable score by Mason Daring.


This Is the Single Best Western Shootout Ever

This 1960 classic Western has the gunfight to end them all.

Even though Lone Star is a sweeping 135 minutes, it feels both like a grand summarization of the Western era and a very exciting crime thriller. Sayles weaponizes every chance he gets to reveal something about the characters that is also relevant to the plot. The flashbacks featuring McConaughey as a young Buddy help reveal important information about Wade’s murder, but they also help the viewer understand what type of man Sam actually had to live with. In hindsight, these flashback scenes make Chris Cooper’s simple explanations about the pair’s disagreements even more heartbreaking. While Lone Star requires the viewer to invest a lot emotionally into the story, it’s a worthwhile film that deserves to be revisited. Some films are simply forgotten by time, and perhaps Lone Star’s merit will finally be recognized 20 years later.

Lone Star is available to stream on Tubi in the U.S.



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