Based on the novel by Max Evans and originally scheduled to be shot by legendary director Sam Peckinpah, "The Hi-Lo Country" is an interesting and often entertaining look at friendship set in the post WWII final days of the grand old West.
While that location and, in fact, that certain American way of life, are usually represented in what everyone knows as "Westerns," some may be surprised to learn that this film was directed by a Brit, Stephen Frears ("The Grifters," "Dangerous Liaisons"). Even so, and much to Frears' credit, the film decidedly oozes Americana as it near lovingly pays homage to the demise of a long revered American cultural icon.
That said, the film isn't a Western in the truest sense of the word. While there are gun-toting cowboys, bar fights, and expansive cattle ranches, this is something more of a hybrid between that genre and an old-fashioned buddy film. With the transition -- and gradual death -- of Clint Eastwood's old stomping ground into corporate America serving as its backdrop, the film parlays the rest of its energies into telling a story of two friends and the woman both love, who may eventually prove to be their undoing.
Told in flashback and occasional voice-over by one of those friends (which begins with him stating that he's set out to kill someone and takes pleasure in the thought of their death), we come to realize as the story unfolds that this woman may have done much more than that.
While that cinematic flashback device (or "flash-forward" if you consider that ninety-nine percent of the picture takes place in its past) certainly isn't new, it's still strong enough to peak and hold one's curiosity about what will occur as the story unfolds.
As adapted by screenwriter Walon Green ("The Wild Bunch"), the story -- which isn't particularly earthshattering or overly complicated, but is dramatically solid -- works for several reasons. None of the players, whether they are protagonists or antagonists, are purely good or evil, and those shades of grey always make for more interesting characters and subsequent conflict between them.
Just as much as the "bad guys" aren't the typical villains dressed in black, Big Boy -- obviously the guy we're supposed to root for -- isn't a clean-cut hero. With his confrontational and cocky, devil-may-care attitude, and his continuation of an adulterous affair, he's certainly not the typical "knight in shining armor."
It's Woody Harrelson's take on that character, however, that really allows the story to take flight. Playing neither the simple movie cowboy caricature nor the more modern, sensitive farmhand, Harrelson (TV's "Cheers," "Natural Born Killers") creates a compelling character who's always completely believable. While he delivered a tremendous performance in "The People Versus Larry Flynt," this one has to rank right up there with that one.
The rest of the performers are decent, but clearly fall into their more flamboyant costar's shadows. Billy Crudup ("Inventing the Abbotts," "Without Limits") is good as the "third wheel," but his nearly constipated look of concern and disappointment starts to wear thin long before the end credits role. Sam Elliot ("Tombstone," "Road House"), on the other hand, isn't given even that much to do with his elusive character.
Regarding the ladies who appear in the film, they've also been given something of the short end of the character development stick. Patricia Arquette ("Nightwatch," "Lost Highway") is appropriately seductive in a white-trash type of way but doesn't bring much else to the role, while Penelope Cruz ("Live Flesh") can't do much in her American debut, what with her shallowly written, near one-note character.
Despite the dramatic shortchanging regarding the supporting and minor characters, the film still works due to Harrelson's performance and Frears' apparent loving respect of the genre. Although the sweeping and powerful score is occasionally overused -- to instill more drama than is actually present at any given moment -- the picture simply has that old-fashioned Western feel that has enamored moviegoers since the dawn of cinema. While the film isn't great, it's dramatically solid and mostly engrossing throughout. We give "The Hi-Lo Country" a 6 out of 10.