It’s not a comeback on a John Travolta scale, but Kris Kristofferson makes an awfully good bad guy in Lone Star, the new mystery/romance/civics lesson from writer-director John Sayles. Kristofferson uses his beady little eyes and rumbly deep voice to give his Texas sheriff Charley Wade an aura of ineluctable evil. Four decades ago, the corrupt, racist Wade had run Rio County, on the Texas-Mexico border, with a sadist’s sneer and an itchy trigger finger. Now Wade’s sun-bleached skull has been found in the desert. Current Rio sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper, of Lonesome Dove) wants to solve this old crime for personal reasons: His late father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), was Wade’s deputy, and Sam wants to know what Buddy’s involvement was.
Lone Star jumps back and forth in time and has two major subplots, one involving the troubled relationships in both an African-American family (headed by Joe Morton, who starred in Sayles’ 1984 The Brother From Another Planet, as a heart-of-stone Army officer) and a Mexican family (whose primary character is a teacher played by Elizabeth Pena — of TV’s Shannon’s Deal). Pena’s Pilar Cruz was Sam’s high school sweetheart, and though they went their separate ways, they’re still pining for each other.
As he did in the little-seen but fascinating City of Hope (1991), Sayles uses a large cast to interweave various stories with smooth skill, and in Lone Star he throws in a lot of revisionist Mexican-American history that occasionally becomes heavy-handed. The biggest problem with Lone Star is that colorful Charley Wade isn’t the center of the movie — it’s bland Sam Deeds. Cooper isn’t a compelling enough movie star to carry us along some of the film’s more languid twists and turns; he can’t hold the screen in his love scenes with the crackling, curt Pena. (Sayles might have done better to switch roles between Cooper and the more charismatic McConaughey, who’s getting major buildup for the upcoming A Time to Kill.) But Sayles has surrounded his hero with other, more interesting characters and has warmed Lone Star with the glow of a humanist optimism rare in contemporary movies. B+