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Weekly Alibi Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

Stephen Frears directs a new-wave Western

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 25, 1999:  The Hi-Lo Country, the new wave Western from British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) and American producer Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) boasts more than a few New Mexico connections. The novel that inspired the film was penned by celebrated local author Max Evans. The film was shot in and around northeastern New Mexico during the summer of 1997. Now, after a brief run in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for Oscar consideration, the film has finally arrived for its theatrical debut in the Land of Enchantment.

At first, Brit boy Stephen Frears might seem an odd choice to helm a New Mexico-set Western. For all its trappings, however, The Hi-Lo Country isn't really a Western. Evans' gift is in creating novels that only seem like Westerns. Screenwriter Walon Green (best known for his turn on the granddaddy of all post-modern Westerns, The Wild Bunch) further complicates the issue by stripping Evans' sprawling, epic book down to its bare bones--namely, love, death and the American West. The result is less of a cowboy flick than it is a dust-covered film noir.

The Hi-Lo Country is set on the wide-open plains of northern New Mexico during the late 1940s. The film begins with angry young rancher Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) sitting outside a church in his pick-up truck, waiting to kill an unnamed somebody with his Winchester rifle. The story of what brought Pete to such a dog-low place is told in flashback and forms the backbone of The Hi-Lo Country's narrative.

In the aftermath of World War II, millions of young soldiers returned to hometown America to find the times a-changin'. Two such ex-dogfaces are Pete Calder and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson). Pete is the rational, quiet type. Big Boy is the hard-drinkin', hard-livin' type. Together, the two spend their days punching cattle and their nights getting into bar fights up Raton/Clayton/Tucumcari way. Returning from the war, though, our two iconoclast cowboys soon realize that the simple way of life they left behind has been irreparably compromised. No longer able to support themselves, local ranchers find themselves increasingly working under the grip of giant cattle barons, as embodied in the town of Hi-Lo's beefy big-wig Jim Ed Love. As portrayed by Sam Elliot, Jim Ed Love is the kind of smiling villain who has no need to engage in typical, hand-wringing dastardly deeds, because he knows he's already won the game. Pete and Big Boy are about the last two residents of Hi-Lo that don't work for Love--and in the dawning era of corporate rule and long-haul trucking, our boys' world of rural farmers and rugged cattle drives seems downright quaint. Pete and Big Boy aren't "The Last of the Cowboys," but they are the last of the old breed.

If only the failing cattle industry was Pete and Big Boy's sole problem. Hi-Lo's other main plot revolves around a nasty love triangle a-borning in cactus country. Seems that Pete has the hots for one spicy tomato by the name of Mona (Patricia Arquette). Unfortunately, Mona is married to Jim Ed Love's right hand man. That isn't the biggest problem, though. Mona's more than willing to engage in a little extra-marital hanky-panky. Sadly for old Pete, though, she's engaging in it with his best friend Big Boy. Passions flair, people die, friendships are strained and by movie's end, Pete is sitting out in that pick-up, cocking his rifle and waiting to ambush ... who?

Some critics have bafflingly compared this film to the work of hallmark Western director John Ford and found The Hi-Lo Country to be lacking in comparison. Apples and oranges, people. Ford trafficked in mythic Westerns full of iconic heroes. Evans' story is the exact opposite of that--an epic tale dragged down to Earth with its gritty characters and photo-realistic situations. Evans spent more than a few years on the ranches of northern New Mexico, and Hi-Lo Country shows it.

Woody Harrelson has done enough impressive film work (especially in The People vs. Larry Flynt) so that we should all stop being amazed when he does a good job on screen. He's more than suited to play the blustery Big Boy--a born and bred roughneck full of booze, rage and lust for life. His Big Boy is a memorable creation--a flawed hero holding onto his anarchic way of life with snarling teeth. In the shadow of Harrelson's bravura scene-chewing, Billy Crudup comes off slightly less successfully. Crudup (Sleepers, Without Limits) is a credible actor, but lacks the charisma to make the pensive, tacit Pete Calder a rousing attraction on screen. Similarly, Patricia Arquette goes for too much slow smolder in her role as Mona, making her a questionable object of affection for every male in the county.

In the end, The Hi-Lo Country's greatest success lies in the level of passionate tension that builds throughout the film. It's all going to end badly, of course, but when? How? Not everyone will take to this film's downbeat drama and "no win" situation. Those looking for stunning New Mexico scenery and some earthy Erskine Caldwell-style drama, though, will walk away impressed. ?


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