Sheriff Sam Deeds is the county sheriff in Frontera, Texas. He was born and raised in Frontera, and returned two years ago to be sheriff. Sam's late father had been the legendary Sheriff Buddy Deeds, who is remembered as fair and just. Sam had problems with his father and the pair routinely fought.
Sam is particularly disapproving of efforts by business leader Mercedes Cruz and Buddy's former deputy, Mayor Hollis Pogue, to enlarge and rename the local courthouse in Buddy's honor; he considers it an unneeded waste of taxpayers' money. As a teenager, Sam had been in love with Mercedes's daughter Pilar, but the courtship was strongly opposed by Buddy and Mercedes. After a chance meeting, Sam and the widowed Pilar, now a local teacher, slowly resume their relationship.
Colonel Delmore Payne has recently arrived in town as the commander of the local U.S. Army base. Delmore is the son of Otis "Big O" Payne, a local nightclub owner and leading figure in the area's African-American community. The two are estranged because of Otis's serial infidelity and abandonment of Delmore's mother when Delmore was a child. Relic hunters discover a human skeleton on an old shooting range along with a Masonic ring, a Rio County sheriff's badge, and a bullet not used by the military. Sam brings in Texas Ranger Ben Wetzel to help with the case. Wetzel tells Sam that forensics identify the skeleton as that of Charlie Wade, the corrupt sheriff who preceded Buddy. Wade had mysteriously disappeared in 1957, taking $10,000 in county funds, after which Buddy became sheriff.
Sam investigates the events leading up to Wade's murder. He learns that Wade terrorized the local African-American and Mexican communities, including numerous murders where he asks his innocent victims to dig out any weapon they might have, to then justify shooting them for "resisting arrest". Wade used this method to murder Cruz's husband, Eladio, in front of Deputy Hollis. Sam visits Wesley Birdsong, a Native American and a roadside tourist stand owner, who reveals that Buddy was a wild young adult who settled down after becoming a deputy sheriff and marrying Sam's mother – though he did have a mistress, whose name Wesley claims to have forgotten. Sam travels to San Antonio, where he visits his marginally mentally ill ex-wife Bunny and searches through his father's things, where he discovers love letters to Buddy's mistress.
Sam confronts Hollis and Otis about Wade's murder. Wade extorted money from a young Otis for running an illegal gambling operation in the bar, then was about to use his "resisting arrest" setup to kill Otis. Buddy arrived just as Hollis shot Wade to prevent Otis's murder. The three buried the body and took the $10,000 from the county and gave it to Mercedes – who was destitute after Eladio's recent death – to buy her restaurant. Hollis reveals that Buddy and Mercedes did not take up until some time later. Sam decides to drop the issue, saying it will remain an unsolved mystery. Hollis voices concern that, when the skeleton is revealed to be Wade, people will assume Buddy killed him to take his job, to which Sam states that Buddy's legend can handle it.
Sam learns that Hollis and Mercedes have recruited his own deputy to run against him in the next election. He decides to not run for re-election.
Sam tells Pilar that Eladio died 18 months, rather than "a few weeks", before she was born. Sam shows Pilar an old photo of Buddy and Mercedes, revealing that Buddy is her father. Both are hurt over the deception but decide that, since she cannot have any more children, they will continue their romantic relationship, despite the knowledge that they are half-siblings.
The movie was filmed in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo, Texas.
The film received highly positive reviews, with Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 43 out of 46 reviews were positive for a score of 93% and a certification of "fresh". Two years after release, Jack Mathews of the Los Angeles Times declared it "critically acclaimed and darn near commercial". In retrospect from 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".
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". "All the film's characters are flesh and blood", Maslin added, pointing particularly to the portrayals by Kristofferson, Canada, James, Morton and Colon. 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". 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".
However, not all contemporary critics were completely positive. While The Washington Post writer Hal Hinson characterized it as "a carefully crafted, unapologetically literary accomplishment", he said that Sayles' "directing style hasn't grown much beyond that of a first-year film student", declaring the director was "stagnant".Wins
Lone Star Film & Television Awards: Best Actor, Chris Cooper; Best Director, John Sayles; Best Film; Best Screenplay, John Sayles; Best Supporting Actor, Ron Canada; Best Supporting Actress, Frances McDormand; 1996.
Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics; Grand Prix
Independent Spirit Awards: Independent Spirit Award; Best Supporting Female, Elizabeth Peña ; 1997.
Bravo Awards: NCLR Bravo Award Outstanding Actress in a Feature Film, Elizabeth Peña; Special Achievement Award Outstanding Feature Film; 1997.
Satellite Awards: Golden Satellite Award; Best Motion Picture Screenplay - Original, John Sayles; 1997.
Society of Texas Film Critics Awards: Best Director, John Sayles; Best Screenplay, John Sayles.
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards: SEFCA Award; Best Director, John Sayles; 1997.
Academy Awards: Oscar; Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, John Sayles; 1997.
Bravo Awards: NCLR Bravo Award; Outstanding Actor in a Feature Film, Tony Plana; 1996.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts: BAFTA Film Award; Best Screenplay - Original, John Sayles; 1997.
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards: BFCA Award Best Picture; 1997.
Casting Society of America: Artios; Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama, Avy Kaufman; 1997.
Golden Globes: Golden Globe; Best Screenplay - Motion Picture, John Sayles; 1997.
Independent Spirit Awards: Independent Spirit Award; Best Feature, R. Paul Miller and Maggie Renzil; Best Male Lead, Chris Cooper; Best Screenplay, John Sayles; 1997.
Satellite Awards: Golden Satellite Award; Best Motion Picture - Drama, R. Paul Miller and Maggie Renzi; 1997.
Writers Guild of America: WGA Award (Screen); Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, John Sayles; 1997.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Western Film