Lone Star is two-thirds of a really good movie. Unfortunately, one-third of it is mediocre melodrama. The two-thirds of the movie that is worth watching is set in a border town in Texas over a period of several decades told through flashbacks. It concerns a corrupt, racist, white sheriff, Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who murders anyone who does not cut him in on business activities, legal or illegal. One night, after his deputy, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), confronts him and lets him know that his days of extorting the community are over, the sheriff disappears along with $10,000 of county funds.
Years later, some human remains are found in the desert. The present sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), the son of Buddy, begins investigating. Little by little, the evidence begins to indicate that the bones are those of Sheriff Wade, that he was shot, and that the person who killed him was Buddy. This occurs just as the town prepares for a dedication, The Buddy Deeds Memorial Courthouse, because Buddy is regarded as a hero in that town. Sam never got along too well with his father, and so he is more than willing to let the truth come out, while Mayor Hollis Pogue, former deputy to Wade and then to Buddy, is opposed to Sam’s efforts. Hollis does not have much respect for Sam, who he thinks will never measure up to what his father was.
Another person sponsoring the dedication is Mercedes Cruz, a respected businesswoman who runs a popular café. She is the mother of Pilar, who used to be Sam’s friend in grade school and his girlfriend in high school. However, Buddy did not want Sam dating her, and he kept them apart, which is a major reason Sam resents his father. Mercedes also disapproved of Pilar and Sam going together.
As Sam continues his investigation, he finds that Sheriff Wade murdered Eladio Cruz one day because he was smuggling Mexicans across the border without giving Wade his usual bribe. Cruz was fixing a flat tire on his truck, with the illegals in the back, when Wade and Deputy Hollis stopped on the road beside them. Wade asks Cruz if he has a gun in his truck, and when Cruz says he has a shotgun, he tells him to get it. When Cruz reaches for the shotgun, Wade shoots and kills him. This way Wade can claim self-defense. Hollis, however, knows it was murder, and he is horrified. It later turns out that Eladio Cruz was Mercedes’ husband. In other words, Mercedes also had a motive to kill Sheriff Wade.
A third person with a strong motive for killing Wade is a black man named Otis, who owns a bar catering to black people. Wade used to shakedown the former owner of the bar, Roderick, and one night when Otis was a young man, who just started working for Roderick, Wade humiliated him.
It finally turns out that the night Buddy told Wade he should turn in his badge and leave town, Wade, along with Hollis, drove over to the black bar to get his usual kickback for letting Roderick stay in business. When Wade discovered that Otis was running a poker game without giving Wade a cut, he beat Otis up. Then he told him to hand him the revolver that Roderick kept in a cigar box, obviously intending to set him up just as he did Eladio Cruz. But just as Buddy walked through the door, Hollis pulled out his own gun and killed Wade. The three of them decided to cover up the killing. They took the $10,000 in county funds and gave it to Mercedes, who had been struggling ever since her husband was murdered. She used the money to start the café.
The night Sam learns about this from Otis and Hollis, he learns something else. Up till then, Sam believed that the reason his father did not want him and Pilar to date was that he did not want his son dating a Mexican. It turns out Buddy had no problem with Anglos and Mexicans crossing racial lines. In fact, he and Mercedes were having an affair. The problem was the opposite of miscegenation. It was incest. Pilar and Sam were brother and sister, at least insofar as Buddy was the father of both. Pilar and Sam had already become lovers again by this time. Since Pilar cannot have children anymore, they decide the incestuous nature of their relationship is not a problem and plan to marry.
That is the good two-thirds of the movie. Unfortunately, John Sayles, who wrote and directed this movie, wanted it to be about the three races of this border town, Anglos, Mexicans, and blacks (as this movie terms them), and he wanted the three races to be represented in equal measure. That is to say, he wanted just as much time spent on African Americans as spent on Caucasians and Latinos (as we would now term them). This desire on Sayles’ part led him to intersperse the story described above with a story about Otis’s son, Colonel Delmore Payne, who is the commanding officer of a local army base.
In many ways, this third of the movie that concerns Colonel Payne and the army base parallels features in the main part of the story: Payne has conflicts with his father, Otis, much as Sam had conflicts with his father, Buddy. There is also a subplot of miscegenation, in which a white male soldier and a black female soldier talk about getting married. But it all falls flat. It is just routine melodrama. Again and again, just as we are really getting into the main part of the movie, it all grinds to a halt so that the subplot surrounding Colonel Payne can be advanced. Considering that the movie is two hours and fifteen minutes long, a version of the movie that left out this part would have been a shorter but much better movie. This is an example of how art can be spoiled by a preconceived idea, in this case, the idea that the three races of this movie must each be given equal time, instead of allowing as much time as needed to tell a good story.