A keen observer of America’s social fabric, writer-director John Sayles uncovers the haunted past buried beneath a small Texas border town in this sprawling neowestern mystery. When a skeleton is discovered in the desert, lawman Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), son of a legendary local sheriff, begins an investigation that will have profound implications both for him personally and for all of Rio County, a place still reckoning with its history of racial violence. Sayles’s masterful film—novelistic in its intricacy and featuring a brilliant ensemble cast, including Joe Morton, Elizabeth Peña, and Kris Kristofferson—quietly subverts national mythmaking and lays bare the fault lines of life at the border.
The Criterion Collection delivers John Sayles’ Lone Star on 4K UHD, presenting the film with Dolby Vision in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a triple-layer disc. This 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation originates from a new 4K restoration sourced from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative. Additionally, the release includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray with a 1080p presentation of the film and all special features.
Having not seen the film for a long while (I owned it on VHS and never upgraded to the barebones DVD), watching it through this new 4K presentation felt like a fresh experience. The meticulous restoration work has effectively cleaned up the film, leaving no significant marks or scratches. Colors, leaning warmer to complement the warmer southwest setting, never veer aggressively into yellow tones, allowing whites to look white (though warm) and blues and reds to pop gorgeously.
Dolby Vision and HDR contribute to enhancing colors, blacks, and shadows. Light seamlessly blends into darker areas, and smokey interiors are distinctly rendered with superb delineation. The black levels are rich and deep, allowing for detailed visibility within the shadows. Highlights look superb, reflecting off various surfaces without suffering from macroblocking, a potential issue in some recent Criterion releases. The overall encode is remarkably clean, showcasing grain nicely. While a few shots may appear slightly soft around the edges, the image remains sharp and crisp, offering a wonderful film-like aesthetic thanks to the clean rendering of the grain.
All in, this presentation stands out as one of Criterion’s more impressive offerings as of late, presenting Lone Star in about as superb a manner as possible.
Criterion includes the film's original 2.0 surround soundtrack in DTS-HD MA. Despite the film being more reflective and dialogue-driven, the soundtrack demonstrates unexpected activity. The music, characterized by dynamic shifts and a wide range between lows and highs, stands out. Gunshots, delivered at elevated volume levels, add a shocking element. The surround channels effectively disperse musical elements within the sound field while also enhancing background effects in busy settings, such as the central bar in the film. Dialogue remains sharp, crisp, and easily audible, with no noticeable damage. Overall, the audio is impressive, delivering a surprisingly satisfying experience.
While the film may not have achieved commercial success initially, it garnered significant acclaim upon its release and remains highly regarded today. It also still has (unfortunately) a timely relevance. Despite this, there is a lack of substantial supplemental content to this release. Criterion has at least recorded two new interviews, which are found on the included Blu-ray (there are no features on the UHD). The first, a 38-minute conversation between John Sayles and Gregory Nava (El norte), initially delves into Sayles’ background and the rise of indie filmmaking in the late 80s/early 90s, before shifting focus to Lone Star. The discussion explores various social themes within the film, touching on class and race hierarchy and the representation and "remembrance" of history. The interview also highlights the film's characters' inclination to reshape history, particularly through the main character's desire to find evidence that his father was a monster.
The discussion then navigates toward casting, noting the impressive ensemble, which includes a pre-stardom Matthew McConaughey and an against-type Kris Kristofferson, the latter being one of my favorite casting choices from the 90s. Technical details, such as the unique transition to flashbacks, are examined. While a director's commentary would have been appreciated, the interview compensates with its engaging and insightful content.
The second interview is with Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who contributes insights on filming his first American production, expressing excitement about the "exotic" southwest landscape and his eagerness to work with Sayles. Delving into the film's look and technical aspects, including lighting and in-camera editing (like those flashback transitions), the interview proves informative and engaging.
However, despite the quality of these interviews, the absence of an academic addition or a new cast interview is surprising. The essay by Domino Renee Perez partially fills the academic void, discussing the film's narrative structure and its examination of race and history, even tying the film to current events, including the uproar around the book Forget the Alamo (which was of course also a line from the film). While intriguing, including a video essay or similar material could have further enriched the features.
When all is said and done, this release represents a significant improvement over Warner's no-frills DVD. Yet, the lack of comprehensive content feels remarkably anticlimactic for a film of this considerable stature (and one that has been requested for so long).
The supplements are fine but incredibly underwhelming. Thankfully, the new 4K presentation looks fantastic.