The Hi-Lo Country
1998, R, 114 min. Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette, Sam Elliott, Penelope Cruz, Cole Hauser, James Gammon, Enrique Castillo, John Diehl.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 22, 1999
As The Hi-Lo Country would have it, Big Boy Matson (Harrelson) is the Last American Cowboy. In keeping with the twofold implications of the movie's title, The Hi-Lo Country is about the twilight of the Old West, a world left in the dust of post-WWII modernizations. While the story's setup would have us expect a reflective elegy for a dying breed, the movie instead straddles turf that might be better described as Western noir. Sexual tension and deceit overtake the cowboys-on-the-increasingly-mechanized-range elements, and before you know it we're cherchezing the femme. The source material for the film is acclaimed Western author Max Evans' 1961 novel of the same title. The book was adapted for the screen by Walon Green (whose first screenplay was Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch). From the time the book was first published until the time of his death, Peckinpah tried unsuccessfully to mount a production of The Hi-Lo Country and it's easy to see what drew the filmmaker to this brooding tale of two best friends uprooted in a land in transition and the woman who came between them. The potential for timeless drama is evident in the premise but the movie quickly loses all sense of compelling narrative tension and has little of the stunning visual dimensions we have come to expect in Westerns. Big Boy and Pete (Crudup) meet up shortly before the war and become fast friends. Upon their return, the men aspire toward cattle ranching but find that the day of the independent rancher is passing into oblivion. Big Ed Love (Elliott) is the area's rapacious cattleman and the young men's nemesis. Big Ed's foreman is a cuckolded husband who is married to the trampy Mona (Arquette), who is carrying on a torrid thing with Big Boy while simultaneously flirting casually with Pete. Pete discovers her duplicity and spends the rest of the movie moony-eyed and frustrated. It saps a lot of the story's forward progression and leaves you wishing that someone would knock some sense into this droopy character whose constant voiceover narration additionally lends the film a decidedly noirish tone. Arquette's Mona is a transparent figure, as provocative and deadly as any film noir dame. As Big Boy, Harrelson is a hellraising dynamo, and his energy brings the only real sparks of life to the screen. (An added attraction, however, is the film's music, which features authentic tunes performed by the likes of Don Walser, Marty Stuart, Leon Rausch, Chris O'Connell, and Johnny Degollado.) Stephen Frears might seem an odd choice to direct this Western given his history of success with such films as The Grifters, and such idiosyncratically British films as My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, and The Snapper. Yet the problem derives mostly from the film's diminishment of its overarching Western themes in favor of a pre-fated love story. By the time The Hi-Lo Country reaches its climax, it is easily mistaken for just another round of horseplay. Giddyup.