The Hi-lo Country

on December 30, 1998 by Wade Major
   Had Max Evans' 1961 novel, "The Hi-Lo Country," been adapted for the screen at the time of its publication, its central preoccupation with the disappearance of the cowboy lifestyle might have held more resonance. Nearly four decades later, the greater question for audiences may be why so many talented people would be drawn to such a tired collection of cliches.
   Set in Texas during the 1940s, "The Hi-Lo Country" is a modernist Western that ultimately seeks to cover much of the same ground as George Stevens' classic, "Giant," similarly mourning the loss of a simpler, more rugged lifestyle amid the confusing complexities of an increasingly industrialized world. Such issues are, indeed, compelling and would be so here were it not for the thicket of melodramatic complications surrounding them.
   Big Boy and Pete (Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup) are a dying breed, roughneck cowpokes who still live the rancher lifestyle with reckless abandon: drinking, brawling, playing poker and just generally living dangerously as all good cowboys supposedly should. Unfortunately, it's the 20th century, not the 19th, in which they live, an era better suited to the likes of Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott, sans mustache), a ruthless cattle baron whose wily ways threaten to roll over every other rancher in the area. Making matters worse, both men are infatuated with the same woman, Mona (Patricia Arquette), the wife of Jim Ed's jealous foreman. But while Pete struggles to keep his passions under wraps, Big Boy foolishly and openly indulges his, carrying on a love affair with Mona that risks undermining everything he and Pete have struggled to build together.
   On the whole, "The Hi-Lo Country" is a competent piece of work, featuring a handful of memorable performances and undeniably polished production values. Unfortunately, the effort seems to have been for naught, for nowhere does the film proffer as much as an idea that wasn't already worn out by the likes of John Ford. Even more problematic is the character of Pete, presumably the level-headed counterbalance to Big Boy's recklessness. Any empathy for Pete is all but undone by his irritating proclivity for consistently making not only wrong choices, but choices of such profound stupidity that one wonders why the cattle aren't herding him.
   To his credit, Pete does eventually clue in and learn his lessons, but by then the damage has been done. Any viewers still sufficiently engaged to care at this late stage will more likely be angry that it took him so long. Starring Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette, Cole Hauser, Sam Elliott and Penelope Cruz. Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Walon Green. Produced by Barbara De Fina & Martin Scorsese and Eric Fellner & Tim Bevan. A Gramercy release. Drama. Rated R for some sexuality, a scene of violence, and for brief language. Running time: 112 min
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