The Hi-Lo Country
Director: Stephen Frears. Cast: Billy Crudup, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Arquette, Sam Elliott, Cole Hauser, Penélope Cruz, James Gammon, John Diehl, Darren Burrows, Lane Smith, Katy Jurado, Rosaleen Linehan. Screenplay: Walon Green (based on the novel by Max Evans).

The Hi-Lo Country is a small story told on a very large canvas. Like the recent and equally misguided Dancing at Lughnasa, the film relies all too heavily on the photogenic appeal of its settings and on the nostalgia induced by its attention to a lost, rather romanticized era. In neither film, however, did the soft beauty on screen or the mournful reverie of the narrator achieve any corollary in my own responses; regarding The Hi-Lo Country, these mostly comprised a frustration with the flimsiness of the picture and a regret that this story could not have been better told by the impressive talents who produced this ponderous mess.

Based on a novel by Max Evans, The Hi-Lo Country begins with not one but two short prologues that introduce the major protagonists. One is Billy Crudup's Pete, who at the film's outset waits in his parked truck outside the closed front door of a church. Pete has his rifle ready and is holding a vigil in the churchyard until his unspecified target exits the building. We do not have any more explanation of Pete's anger than we do information about the identity of the planned victim. We receive this glimpse merely to appreciate an air of doom that surrounds what we are about to see. Next, Pete navigates us in voice-over through a moment in 1942 when, after a fairly long ride, he is tossed by a new horse who then runs off. Old Sorrel, as the horse is named, is intercepted by Big Boy Mattson (Woody Harrelson), a cocky cowboy who nonetheless works some Robert Redford-type wonders on the agitated beast and offers to help Pete establish a home and a working ranch on those outskirts of Hi-Lo, New Mexico, where Pete now finds himself.

Screenwriter Walon Green (who scripted the seminal Peckinpah Western The Wild Bunch) and director Stephen Frears thus forge our acquaintance with Pete and Big Boy quickly and effectively. After a brief interlude, however, when the two men enlist for duty in World War II and promptly return from battle, the filmmakers introduce us again to the same two guys: can't something happen already? The former is now well-ensconced on the land with a going interest in cattle. Even more interesting to Pete is Mona, a slow-burning siren played by Patricia Arquette who has married a sour-faced rancher named Les. "Everyone else was at war," Mona offers as her reason for accepting Les' offer. She takes a brief, intimate turn on the dance-floor with Pete before she is called back to a table with Les and his boss, local power player Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott).

It's clear enough that Jim Ed doesn't want to see his sidekick's wife nuzzling too close to another man, particularly a young, virile threat like Pete. He and Les haven't begun to meet their match, though, for when Big Boy returns from his own service abroad—a survivor of war wounds and thus more insolent and invincible than ever—he rekindles an affair with Mona much more passionate than her casual interest in Pete. Big Boy is hardly the sort of character to quell his true feelings, and Hi-Lo is hardly unaware of his dalliance with Mrs. Les Birk. Nor does Big Boy miss any chance to antagonize his brother Little Boy (Cole Hauser) for selling out and working for Jim Ed's conglomerate rather than pursuing the Mattson tradition of cattle drives, steer-ropings, and independent, cavalier living. Pete, more cautious by nature than his free-wheeling best friend, backs off from Mona and watches over Big Boy's back for any danger from his rival ranchers. In neither domain, however, will Pete's loyalty and friendship necessarily be enough of a safeguard. He is too smitten with Mona (despite a sporadic fling with Penélope Cruz's Nice Mexican Girl, Josepha) to abandon his desire completely, and Big Boy is too demonstrative of his ill will toward Jim Ed's cohort for his pride to go unpunished.

One cannot necessarily say that The Hi-Lo Country is too predictable or that characters named Big Boy and Little Boy, for example, or even an antagonist named Love, are too formulaic. Westerns have always subsisted on formula; as in Elizabethan comedies, the technique and momentum required by the artists are to make interesting and inventive the journey by which we reach an inevitable destination. Here is where The Hi-Lo Country fails so signally, because the arc of the story and the fate of its characters are never anything but inevitable. There is nothing lively, nothing truly somber, and nothing honestly elegiac about what happens. The most sincere mourning performed by the filmmakers is for the antiquated, rustic way of life maintained by Big Boy in the face of industrialized means of exchange and consolidated business. Harrelson and his associates are always refusing money for small favors, and they seem generally to disavow any notion of profit, any chance for keeping up with the times.

It can only be a personal value judgment as to whether this sort of parochialism seems noble or totally misguided; the issue is not mine to decide. Either way, however, I could not help feeling that Big Boy's staunch commitment to tradition—like another Harrelson picture, this one might as well have been called The Cowboy Way—was not really a palpable aspect of his personality, but rather an author's conspicuous stroke in constructing a character. We see in Harrelson's performance Big Boy's ease with the land and his rowdy resistance to authority, but neither the actor nor the script fortifies his vaunting of the Old Ways, his love of Mona, his dedication to his mother, and his other exhibited traits into a cohesive or persuasive whole. The issue becomes central to The Hi-Lo Country because we are asked at key moments to valorize Big Boy and what he stands for, or at least to credit him with an extra-institutional code of honor that modern advances and morays have made obsolete. Big Boy is so stuck in his own vision of the past, however, that he cannot reasonably fit into any present or future world. There is no sense lamenting a figure or romanticizing one who was always so absent and such a romantic to begin with; I'm not sure why the filmmakers cue us to do so with such frequency.

Frears' career continues to be an interesting and encouragingly diverse experiment that has not yielded enough firm results. In the beginning, he showed great flair for filming unlikely stories with an ironic straightforwardness (My Beautiful Laundrette is both subversive and sentimental) and, alternatively, capturing more genre-bound entertainments like Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters with a refreshing tension, eccentricity, and economy. I even liked his much-maligned Mary Reilly with Julia Roberts as Dr. Jekyll's maidservant, but The Hi-Lo Country serves no purpose for Frears—and seems to gather none of his energy or enthusiasm—except as yet another unpredictable choice in a body of work that already encompasses so many forms and categories. A Frears Western sounds like a provocative proposition, but then he goes and shoots a picture with no verve, no element of style; his approach is as dutifully time-bound and unimaginative as Big Boy's own adherence to established norms.

The other asset Frears typically uses to great advantage is an ability to make actors comfortable in improbable roles. He, after all, is the man who made Glenn Close a warlord, Anjelica Huston a ball-breaking blonde, and John Malkovich a viperish stud before that was his way-played-out stock in trade. Frears' instinct with actors was already faltering by the point of Malkovich's own indulgent turn in Mary Reilly, and in this film he fails to make anyone seem truly settled in their part. Crudup is serviceable but doesn't fix his performance anywhere; we notice him, certainly, but are neither required nor moved to think much about his Pete. Arquette might be a major talent if given the right chance—she needs a part like Kim Basinger got in L.A. Confidential, and in fact would have been striking in that precise role. As Mona, she masters the look and the anxiety of a woman who knows she's too expansive for her small town, and that her wily lover is endangering their security with the same antics that attract her in the first place. There's just not much for her to do, so she necessarily wears out her welcome using the same few expressions and dolorous gazes over and over.

Harrelson, in the end, does everything he can think of to inject into Big Boy the large-heartedness, the wild spirit, and the starry-eyed immaturity that Big Boy seems to embody. If, as I have said, the performance never really jells, and if Harrelson may even be said to try too hard, the blame is not his alone. This is a literal-minded, unadventurous, and deliberate project, and nothing about Harrelson's special talents (or those of Frears) incline toward the literal or the deliberate. He is the sort of free-riding maverick that this picture thinks it longs for, when in fact it only has room in its heart for safety, copycatting, homage, and empty images. The Hi-Lo Country is so embalmed in sepia-toned ruefulness for lost times and impossible dreams that it cannot accommodate as vivid and unpredictable a figure as the one to whom it thinks it pays tribute. D


Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Best Director
National Board of Review: Breakthrough Performance, Male (Crudup)

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