|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
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
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.
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.