The strength of The Hi-Lo Country is the way it captures the raw beauty of a particular landscape and an atmosphere of resentful nostalgia as the life of the cowboy drifts from reality to mythology. Set in northeast New Mexico during the 1940s, the film follows the friendship between Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson), which epitomizes the increasingly outmoded cowboy values of hard work and male bonding.
Pete and Big Boy return from fighting in World War II to a familiar-looking Hi-Lo that’s irrevocably changed. What was once a string of small, family-owned cattle ranches is being consolidated into one big megaranch under Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott, who makes the most of a sneering smile).
But instead of really examining how capitalism smothers even the most beloved Americana, the film focuses on these men’s tortured relationships with women. Even though Pete is involved with the patient, levelheaded Josepha (Penelope Cruz), he’s obsessed with the town siren, the unhappily married Mona (Patricia Arquette). Unfortunately, the man Mona wants is Big Boy, and Pete is forced by loyalty to stand back and watch. Thrown into the volatile mix is L.B. Matson, aka Little Boy (Cole Hauser), who wants nothing more than to get out from under the massive shadow cast by his hard-living, flamboyant older brother.
Director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) can’t quite reconcile these story lines, and the script by Walon Green — based on Max Evans’ novel — relies too much on voice-over narration from the laconic Billy Crudup to fill in the emotional gaps. But Oliver Stapleton’s superb, sun-bleached cinematography, Carter Burwell’s rousing, majestic score and Woody Harrelson’s double-barreled performance as a determined, uncompromising, but often reckless man rejuvenate the pleasures of the western genre. It’s also refreshing to see suitably weathered actors like James Gammon, Enrique Castillo and Darren Burrows, who actually look like they belong in this harsh environment.
In The Hi-Lo Country, Big Boy can’t see pursuing a life beyond "cowboying." He doesn’t realize he’s a dying breed.
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