The Hi-Lo Country


          A lot of ink has already been spilled over how Sam Peckinpah had once
  planned to make a film based on Max Evans 1961 novel
The Hi-Lo Country.
  In fact, some of my colleagues seem to be reviewing the film that wasn't
  made instead of the version Stephen Frears filmed from Walon Green's script.

          At first glance, the British Frears may seem an unlikely choice to make
  a very American story, which could be termed a modern Western. But
  remember, this is the director who made one of the best modern films noir
  (
The Grifters), the touching gay love story My Beautiful Laundrette and
  two enjoyable adaptations of Roddy Doyle novels,
The Van and The Snapper.
  But, Frears is also the man who foisted on moviegoers the pseudo-Capraesque
    Hero, miscast Julia Roberts as Mary Reilly and ruined an otherwise fine version
  of
Dangerous Liaisons by entrusting the leads to the reptilian John Malkovich
  as a debonair seducer and the obvious Glenn Close (who still seemed stuck
  playing Alex from
Fatal Attraction). Still, Frears has proven adept with material
  that focused on sexual politics and the love triangle at the heart of this film,
  coupled with the elegiac passing of era should have been up the director's alley.
  The results, though, fall somewhere in the middle.

          Set just after World War II, the central characters, Big Boy Matson
  (Woody Harrelson) and Pete Calder (Billy Crudup), are odd choices as heroes.
  They are backward-looking men, ones who refuse to accept progress and want
  to maintain the ways of the Old West, mores and codes of honor that were
  already anachronistic before both went off to serve their country.

          Pete, the film's narrator, wants to be a cattle rancher with Big Boy, he
  shares the duties with Hoover Young (James Gammon), the last man in their
  area of New Mexico to holdout from the conglomerates, as represented by the
  slightly sinister Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott). Further complicating matters is a
  woman — Mona Birk(Patricia Arquette), who strung Pete along before the war,
  married Jim Ed's right-hand man (John Diehl) and then took up with Big Boy
  after his return from military service. Pete half-heartedly courts a local Mexican
  woman Josepha (Penélope Cruz) but remains attracted to and fascinated by
  Mona.
          
          Walon Green's screenplay provides for three archetypal characterizations
  in the leads but where Frears has failed in his casting. Of the trio, only Woody
  Harrelson provides the outsized brio the role requires. I must confess,
  Harrelson has never been a favorite of mine. To me, he was adequate as
  the dim bartender on the long-running sitcom "
Cheers" and several of his early
  feature roles traded on that persona. Along about Oliver Stone's
    Natural Born Killers, though, I started to take notice. His extraordinary
  impersonation of the publisher of
Hustler magazine in The People vs. Larry
    Flynt
, for which he earned a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination,
  convinced me that there was more to him than I had thought. With his small
  but indelible role in
The Thin Red Line and his wonderful characterization of
  Big Boy Matson in
The Hi-Lo Country, Harrelson has truly arrived. He is the
  only one of the three leads who seems to "get" the story and he invests his
  character with the right amount of good-ol'-boy sensibility but tempers it with
  a reserve of strength and awareness that raises this to one of his best screen
  incarnations.

          Crudup possesses movie star looks, soulful eyes and exquisite
  cheekbones. He could easily trade on his looks and undertake less challenging
  material, but as an actor he continues to try to stretch himself. In this film,
  he overreached. What I found was an inconsistency to his work. There were
  some scenes where I felt he just wasn't there; his eyes betrayed him. He
  looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else and that diluted his character for
  me. As Pete is the narrator, this is a major drawback. While Harrelson seemed
  to explode off the screen, Crudup was imploding. This might have worked had
  it been relegated to their scenes together; their styles actually were
  complementary and they were believable together.

          It was when Patricia Arquette entered the scene when things got more
  complicated. With her blonde hair died a shade of reddish brown, Arquette
  perfectly looked the role. She seemed at home in the skin of this slinky, sexy
  
femme fatale, but when she opened her mouth and tried to act . . . . To be
  kind, all I can say is she gave it a try but I was painfully aware of her
  struggling to maintain the illusion, like a young girl playing dress-up. The
  role called for an actress like Catherine Zeta-Jones or Jennifer Connelly, both
  of whom can be sultry and alluring and maintain an air of mystery. There
  was little screen chemistry between either Arquette and Crudup or Arquette
  and Harrelson which also damaged the story.

          The other big casting faux pas was Sam Elliott as Jim Ed Lovell. His
  character is a villain and Elliott did everything to underline that but twirl his
  mustache. On the other hand, Frears did fine with his supporting cast. Cole
  Hauser was excellent as Harrelson's younger brother who senses the coming
  changes and throws his lot with Lovell as was Lane Smith as Lovell's
  accountant. The marvelous Irish actress Rosaleen Linehan did a terrific job
  as Harrelson's widowed mother and James Gammon lent his crusty persona
  to his role as the old-fashioned cattle rancher. It was also great to see
  Darren Burrows (best known as Ed on the TV series "
Northern Exposure") and
  the ever dependable (although here grossly underutilized in what would be
  her last major film role) Katy Jurado as a Mexican fortune teller.

          Special notice should also be given to Patricia Norris for her exemplary
  production and costume designs and Oliver Stapleton's majestic
  cinematography. Frears does know how to get a story on its feet and the
  action moves fairly quickly.
The Hi-Lo Country is a good film; that it had
  the potential to be even better is what is so heartbreaking.        



                    
Rating:                     B
                    
MPAA Rating:            R for some sexuality, a scene of violence,
                                                          and for brief language
                    
Running time:           114 mins.
© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.