Shout! Factory // 1998 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // December 12th, 2012
"It started when things were a good deal simpler than they are now..."
Cattle drives were starting to disappear from the Western landscape in the late 1940s, the setting for The Hi-Lo Country. Still, there was a certain romance about them, so there's always a fictional cowboy (the movie's based on a Max Evans novel) who'll decide he can't give up the trail. Big Boy, the central character of The Hi-Lo Country, is just that sort of brawling, tough throwback. Naturally, he'll reach the end of the trail, but in an unexpected way.
Pete (Billy Crudup, The Good Shepherd) is rather taken with Mona (Patricia Arquette, Medium) after dancing with her at a fiesta. It turns out that his friend Big Boy (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games) is also taken with Mona. Trouble is, she's already taken -- and her husband wants to kill Big Boy.
As Big Boy, the tragic hero, Woody Harrelson is all swagger. The rhythm of his words -- and his reputation -- often makes you feel that they're the foreshadowing of gunplay or a brawl. That's the case at times, but Big Boy backs a lot of people down just with the attitude in his voice. It's not just tough, it's completely I-don't-give-a-damn. Big Boy's a brawler who doesn't mind getting hurt himself. Even when greeting friend Pete right after World War II, they immediately wind up rasslin'. He's a worker, not a big-time rancher, but he puts hundreds into the pot in a poker game. He wants to keep doing cattle drives, even when he ends up owning a herd and could transport the beeves more cheaply. Harrelson isn't likable as Big Boy -- he can come off as a bully, especially when tormenting the cuckolded husband of Mona -- but he's fascinating to watch.
As Pete, the narrator, Billy Crudup is cast as the voice of reason, although he's torn because he loves Mona, too. His most telling scene finds him dancing with Mona again at Big Boy's urging. He's jealous of her affection for Big Boy, even as he's loyal to his friend and trying to stop a violent confrontation. He knows that Mona's trouble, but he's still enchanted. As Mona, Patricia Arquette sows trouble with a smile. There's always a hint of sexuality in her voice that could tempt an affair. Once somebody's tempted, there's more than a hint of sexuality in her kissing and other lovemaking. This is probably a good point to note that this is not a film for the whole family.
Notable elsewhere in the cast are Sam Elliott (Tombstone), who brings his own version of cockiness to the role of cattle kingpin Jim Ed Love, and Penelope Cruz (Bandidas) in the role of Josepha, Pete's on-and-off girlfriend, who simmers as she watches Pete swoon over Mona and defend his adulterous buddy.
The story's more about a love, um, tree (triangle only suggests two men fighting over the woman; Mona has sparked passion in at least three) than about the travails of cattle drovers. Still, director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette) offers some scenes of driving cattle, including a dramatic one in a snowstorm. Those scenes play an important part in setting up the tragic character of Big Boy, showing the hardworking attitude that goes with the hard-fighting attitude. Frears controls the viewers' attention enough to make the story's ending a surprise, and to make you give a damn when the I-don't-give-a-damn hero finally runs into serious trouble.
The New Mexico scenery, whether majestic or just plain dusty, comes across
well, for the most part. There was one night scene that was a little tough to
make out, and I thought I saw a slight fading in the film in one daylight
There are no extras. If you wanted to hear about recreating 1940s New Mexico in film, you're out of luck. It does make for a simple menu, though. Just press the button and you see the film -- no trailers, no previews, no PSAs, just the film.
Shout! Factory's release of The Hi-Lo Country is barebones, but if you're a fan of Max Evans or Woody Harrelson and you spot it at a decent price, you might want to pick it up.
Hi-Lo, goodbye. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R