The Hi-Lo Country

1998, Movie, R, 114 mins


Who'd have thought it? Steven Frears triumphs where Sam Peckinpah failed -- Peckinpah devoted years to Max Evans' elegiac novel of the post-WWII West, but Frears actually got it to the screen. The English director stirred screenwriter Walon Green (THE WILD BUNCH) and actor James Gammon -- one of Peckinpah's casting picks -- into the trail mix, and the result is an oddly old-fashioned Western under the veneer of motorcars and war heroes. Set in Hi-Lo, NM, the sprawling story boils down to the ever-combustible two dudes and the gal who comes between them. Best friends Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson) come back from the front determined to forget what they saw of the changing world and immerse themselves in cattle drives and cantinas where their daddies would have felt right at home. Pete buys a small spread and Big Boy hooks him up with a partner, an old-fashioned cattleman (Gammon) determined to hold out against the soulless, corporate-style ranching that's stampeding over the horizon. But the future's already taken root in the person of smooth-talking bottom-liner Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott), who stayed at home making a fortune while better men were at war. The whiff of perfume in all the pungent male bonding is Mona Birk (Patricia Arquette), a cunning little vixen mired in a marriage of convenience to Jim Ed's sullen foreman (John Diehl). Pete loves Mona, Mona loves Big Boy, and no good can come of it all. Rambling and stunningly photographed, Frears' take on the classic Western conventions is surprisingly conventional: A touch of Leone imagery and WWII malaise notwithstanding, we're in a man's world driven by pig-headed pride and macho one-upmanship, where horses invariably prove more loyal and less trouble than fillies in high heels. Is that all there is? leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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