Modern cowboy movies have traditionally had difficulty finding audiences, as the whole point of stories like John Huston's The Misfits, The Honkers and Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men is the demolition of the romantic cowboy mythos. Author Max Evans wrote The Rounders in 1960, which became a moderately successful Burt Kennedy picture starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda... but it was a comedy. According to Sam Peckinpah's biographers, he was trying to launch a feature version of Evan's The Hi-Lo Country as early as 1965, at a time when Peckinpah was on the outs with the major studios. As with seemingly hundreds of other projects, Peckinpah never got the film going, which fortunately made room for this beautifully filmed 1998 version. Director Stephen Frears is a master genre stylist, having guided the superlative Spain-set Brit noir The Hit, the best Jim Thompson film adaptation The Grifters and the creepy London-based thriller Dirty Pretty Things. Looking at The Hi-Lo Country one would think that Frears had been raised in the saddle. The very first sequence says something very honest about cowboys and their horses, and also involves a stunt so perfect that we wince in pain. No shallow mythmaking here. Frankly, Peckinpah probably would probably have messed this story up but good: his own Junior Bonner goes all sentimental when it should be tough-minded.
Loping along with the confidence shared by its boisterous but fair-minded heroes, The Hi-Lo Country begins with a sort-of prologue in which young cowboys Pete Calder and Big Boy Matson (Billy Crudup of Watchmen & Woody Harrelson) become fast friends before rushing off to fight when WW2 is declared. Their return sees major changes to their hometown of Hi-Lo, New Mexico. In their absence Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott) has found a way to acquire thousands of acres of grazing land, and dominates the local beef business. Refusing to work for the arrogant Jim Ed, Pete and Big Boy use their service pay and partner with neighboring small-timer Hoover Young (James Gammon) to mount a big enough operation to survive against Jim Ed's aggressive competition. But there's plenty of ill will between the rival outfits.
Not only does Big Boy frequently incite trouble with Jim Ed's men, he torments his own younger brother Little Boy (Cole Hauser) because he works for Jim Ed. Pete drifts away from his old sweetheart, Mexican-American Josepha O'Neil (Penélope Cruz) when he strikes sparks with the alluring Mona (Patricia Arquette), who happens to be married to Jim Ed's foreman, Les Birk (John Diehl). And Pete's emotions go haywire when Mona takes up not with him, but with Big Boy. Pete's best friend and the girl he loves carry on in front of his nose. He won't listen when Josepha tells him the truth, that Mona is an irresponsible playgirl who loves only sensation. At a poker game, Big Boy so provokes Jim Ed's factor Steve Shaw (Lane Smith) that the man has a heart attack. He also openly flaunts his relationship with Mona. Pete knows that his best friend is asking to be murdered, but he can't get Big Boy to show any caution.
The Hi-Lo Country has plenty of what a good western needs: convincing atmosphere and characters that seem natural to the environment. Pete and Big Boy are great guys, loyal friends and dependably honest. The horse sale that begins the movie lays the foundation for a lasting relationship. Pete is easygoing and open-faced, quiet but attentive to all around him. Patient with old trucks and horses, he's not the greatest cowboy in history -- when we first see Pete his horse bucks him off onto a rocky riverbank. Big Boy Matson is the model cowboy. He is bigger and rougher and knows cowboy ways better than anyone. Big Boy is a handful -- more aggressive, faster with his mouth and far too quick to express his likes and dislikes. But he hides nothing - what you see is what you get.
Forever glad-handing and smiling, Jim Ed Love has the world by the tail. He used the hardships of the war years -- when so many young men like Pete were off fighting -- to snap up distressed properties. Now he has a little racket going, surrounded by subordinates that jump at his every whim. Jim Ed doesn't sabotage Pete or Big Boy's operation, or break the law, but we still don't like him.
At the center of this mess is the man-bait troublemaker Mona. She encourages Pete to make out with her when her husband is only a few feet away: 'some hankypanky in a car don't mean nothing.' Pete is hooked even when she proves that she's not good -- she's the one his body wants. Josepha isn't being catty when she tells Pete that Mona was a whore, and even Mona admits that she married Les because he was the only man around. All she cares about is not being bored. We of course hope that Pete will come to his senses and do right by Josepha, if only because she's played by Penélope Cruz. As the movie was made in 1998 Cruz still looks like a teenager -- she's the first actress that seriously fits into the type established by Sophia Loren. The talented Patricia Arquette does what's right for the story by making Mona look like a hell of a hot date. But Cruz is definite dream girl material, too exotic to be true.
The Hi-Lo Country has plenty of rugged cowboy action, including some convincing stunts and a serious emergency in a blizzard. Woody Harrelson may have used a very well matched stunt double, but it really looks like him when Big Boy rushes into a rodeo arena to extricate his brother from a bucking bull. The movie also gets a high score for credibility in its cowboy bar scenes, where we hear some really fine western-style music. Yodeling vocalist Don Walser sings a particularly charming song. Big Boy is forever picking fights and several brawls break out, all of which are highly motivated and bruisingly wild. The movie's action suits the drama - these cowboys carry a gun only when they're foolishly looking for trouble. They aren't six-guns, and nobody owns a holster.
Frankly, ever since The Wild Bunch westerns of all stripes have been stuck in the thematic groove of cowboys/bandits/lawmen being passed over by changing times. We've seen everybody from Lee Marvin to William Holden to Paul Newman shake their heads at the ignoble sunset for their beloved way of life. The Hi-Lo Country acknowledges change without getting all maudlin about it. Big Boy is proud of doing things the old way. Both he and Pete look forward to a big cattle drive, just like the old days.
Pete: "People still drive cattle to rail heads.
Sure enough, Big Boy does his accounting and, now that he's trying to make a profit, announces that it just isn't reasonable to transport his cows by any way but truck.
Director Stephen Frears gives his show pace and form without sacrificing all of its strong character qualities. I haven't seen the majority of Frears' films but I can say I have yet to be disappointed by one. I didn't see The Hi-Lo Country in a theater -- I was on my way one afternoon but didn't make it. It was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese's outfit and apparently did abysmal business, which is a real shame. Like I said, modern cowboy pictures have traditionally been a hard sell - I saw little or no publicity for this engagingly intelligent sagebrush drama.
Shout Factory's DVD of The Hi-Lo Country is an acceptable enhanced transfer of this nicely shot western. It's too bad that no Blu-ray was produced, as the image probably would have improved considerably. The only flaw I saw may have been specific to the way my player reacted to the encoding -- fast motion would occasionally produce a pattern of artifacting that looked like thin Venetian blinds, just for a frame or two. I emphasize that this phenomenon might be limited to my particular setup.
The movie comes with nothing, not even marked chapter stops. There are no subtitles, which makes some of slangy-twangy western dialogue difficult to understand.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hi-Lo Country Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.