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'Hi-Lo,' Riding Herd on Too Much Territory

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Hi-Lo Country Billy Crudup, left, and Woody Harrelson are best buds in "The Hi-Lo Country." (Gramercy)

Stephen Frears
Woody Harrelson;
Billy Crudup;
Patricia Arquette;
John Diehl;
Sam Elliott;
Penelope Cruz;
Katy Jurado
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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"The Hi-Lo Country" is the movie that the late, great Sam Peckinpah yearned to make all those years ago. Under other guidance, it has finally reached the screen and unsurprisingly it turns out to be about a one-man wild bunch.

That Big Boy Matson, he's a heroic sumbitch, wild, crazy, free, smart, tough, violent and of course funny in that needly sergeant's way, infinitely amused at the scrabblings of the less testosterone-endowed. As played (or should I say occupied) by Woody Harrelson, he's all of a piece, all man, and all trouble. He's too big to play by rules or adjust to the changes coming across the West. That makes him interesting, dangerous and doomed.

His primary misfortune is that it's not old Mexico, 1914, just before a big war; it's New Mexico, 1946, just after a big war. The times they are a-changing; fellow can't just up and do what he wants. Cowboying across an open range is a dying profession. Makes more sense to ship the critters by truck to the railhead. That is, if some corporate Jimmy-gimme hasn't bought up all the cattle.

Big Boy's story is conventional, as derived from a novel by an authentic cowboy named Max Evans. One can certainly see the elements that attracted Peckinpah, a specialist in the double-edged weapon of machismo, so attractive, so tragic, and the elegiac sense of a frontier slowly closing down. And Peckinpah's most successful screenwriter, Walon Green (he wrote "The Wild Bunch," among other films), is behind the keyboard on this proj ect. Green writes exceptionally good pick-a-fight dialogue; he loves those little comic riffs of antagonism where two cowpokes pick at each other's scabs in incrementally escalating scorn until violence is inevitable. ("The Wild Bunch" was full of such nasty pleasures, too.)

But what's the Britisher Stephen Frears doing behind the camera; does the director of "Dangerous Liaisons" seem an ideal choice for a western? Well, remember that "Liaisons," as well as another film in the Frears oeuvre, "The Hit," were about male predation at its ugliest. Frears may not know the geography but he certainly knows the territory.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Pete Calder (Billy Crudup, who looks astonishingly like Tommy Lee Jones before his face crinkled up like the floor of the Mojave Desert). Pete loves Big Boy and almost becomes his little brother but there are complications: The first is that Big Boy already has a little brother, called Little Boy (Cole Hauser); the second is that as much as he loves him, Pete hates him, too, for Big Boy is currently having a big whoopee with the beautiful Mona (Patricia Arquette), whom Pete secretly lusts after. Now, just to keep it interesting, Mona is the wife of Les (John Diehl), the foreman of big, greedy ranch owner Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott).

Does the foregoing suggest there's enough material in "The Hi-Lo Country" for any three or four movies? And I didn't even mention the blizzard, Jim Ed's ambitions to buy up all the cattle and range, the poker scene, a long rodeo sequence and a final blast of squalid domestic violence.

Way too much movie. Not enough time. It's a kind of triangle-o-rama, in which Jim Ed and Big Boy both love the land; Big Boy and Pete both love Mona; Big Boy and Les both love Mona; Pete and Little Boy both love Big Boy; Big Boy and Pete both love a horse called Old Sorrel; Hoover Young and Jim Ed both love the cattle business; Mona and Josepha both love Pete (a little, at least). And I don't even have room to tell you who Hoover Young (James Gammon) is.

By the end, the film has lost all semblance of coherent narrative and become a collection of almost random episodes. Each is amusing or powerful, but they don't connect into something meaningful. The theme about Big Cattle taking over, in the form of Sam Elliott? Forgotten, utterly. Elliott, after dominating every scene he's in with that squint-eyed look of ironic superiority, vanishes. The love affair between Pete and Josepha (Penelope Cruz, a big Spanish movie star in her first American film)? Lost. Blown away.

But for a long time, the movie's some kind of fun. It has a wonderful sense of not one but two distinct styles in American history: the West and the '40s. It offers some crackerjack fight scenes, a gut-busting rodeo thing when two crazed stuntmen actually get in the ring with one very large, angry bull that doesn't know it's in the movies.

And, bless his soul, Frears has studied the iconography of the American western with enough attention to offer some old, lost movie thrills: the sweep of prairie giving away to blue mountains in the distance, the course of a lone rider across the plains, a sense of the incredible dynamism and danger in cattle ranching, particularly as it applies to large bovine morons who also don't know they're in the movies and don't like the rope just tossed around their necks. On that score alone, I took some pleasure from the film. Too bad, in the end, it was all hat and no cattle.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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