In Stephen Frears' elegiac new movie, The Hi-Lo Country, the old ways of the cowboy are dying, if not dead. The West in the late 1940s has not only been won, it's been parcelled out and fenced off. In the New Mexico town of Hi-Lo they still have a saloon bar where men play poker, get drunk and brawl, but somehow it isn't quite the same anymore. We are in the same period of transition, and much the same terrain, covered by Cormac McCarthy in his Border Trilogy (It's fashionable again, too - Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of All The Pretty Horses is due for release this autumn). The motor car is superseding the horse, trucks can move stock more quickly than a cattle drive: that old frontier spirit is truly getting its ass kicked.
For two best friends returning from Second World War service, however, it's a case of holding back the years. Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson) last raised hell together on the night news of Pearl Harbour broke. The latter has since been involved in the Pacific conflict, but he returns to Hi-Lo pretty much the same as he left it: boisterous, loud-mouthed, volatile. Pete doesn't seem to have been deeply affected by his war experience, either, though he is naturally the more reserved and reflective of the two.
Using their demob money both men want to strike out on their own as cowboys, but the war has narrowed the possibilities: local bigwig Jim Ed (Sam Elliott) has bought out many small-holders and he has changed ranching from a way of life into big business. "People still drive cattle to the railheads", Pete tells him. "Only in the movies", Jim Ed replies, and from his complacent grin you know he's right.
The drama of the story heats up around Mona (Patricia Arquette), a voluptuous siren who's married to Jim Ed's foreman. At one point she reflects in her dreamy, bored way: "I hate things that repeat on and on, never changing", and you suspect that one of those things is the doggedness of male attention. This doesn't stop Pete adoring her. But, unfortunately for him, Mona's heart belongs to another - Big Boy himself: a romantic Pete tries to assuage his hurt via a half-hearted dalliance with Josepha (Penelope Cruz). To have the luscious Penelope Cruz clinging to you and still feel disappointed might seem the height of ingratitude, but Pete will not be told.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the Max Evans novel on which the film is based was first optioned by Sam Peckinpah in the early 1960s. The misty-eyed view of loyalty amongst men; the mournful dilemma of the frontiersman left stranded by the encroachment of new technology, the violence that is both a badge of courage and the surest route to self- destruction - all these themes were famously dear to Peckinpah's heart. Perhaps the closest he ever came to Evans' story was his lovely crepuscular Western, Junior Bonner (1972), in which Steve McQueen starred as a rodeo champion returning to his Arizona hometown to find that (classic Peckinpah) times have changed. The Hi-Lo Country does have another link with old Sam - it's adapted for the screen by Walon Green, who drafted the original screenplay of The Wild Bunch.
A British director taking on this gnarled American terrain needs his wits about him, and Stephen Frears, for most of the time, seems undaunted by his arrival in the West. He and his director of photography, Oliver Stapleton, frame the shimmering desert spaces with confidence, and his picture of Hi-Lo favourably recalls both the melancholy languor of Edward Hopper and the tired old town of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show.
Frears is good at staging action too, exemplified in a mesmerically taut encounter at a gas station: Big Boy fronts up to his younger brother, Little Boy, who has gone to work for Jim Ed, though the unspoken tension thrums between Big Boy, Mona and her husband, who's just catching on that he might be a cuckold. As he did in his great picture, The Grifters, Frears is skilled enough to let images as well as words carry the narrative burden.
And yet the picture, while not actually dull, never thrills the blood. Pete, who also does duty as narrator, says at the beginning: "I once set out to kill someone", and part of the film's plan is to keep us wondering over the identity of his target. In the meantime we are asked to invest our sympathy in two men who refuse to grow up. They drink, they fight, they piss and moan about their enemies. Billy Crudup's saturnine wariness is enough to keep us going; as Pete, his barely suppressed longing for Mona is exasperating, but understandable.
Woody Harrelson, on the other hand, is one of those actors who can't help alienating audiences, even when they mean to endear. I suspect the idea was to make him a loose cannon, a hard nut, but finally a good guy: yet Harrelson, swaggering about in spite of a very obvious wig, can't make of his character anything more complex than the town asshole. This in turn renders the unstinting love of Mona and Pete pretty baffling - everybody else can see what he is, but them.
In the smaller roles, Arquette and Cruz are fine, while James Gammon as local rancher Hoover Young has a face as leathery and characterful as an old saddlebag. I hope we get another chance to gaze on his magnificent phiz before the West finally passes altogether. (It's been passing for some time now). Such incidental pleasures aren't to be underestimated, though they can't raise The Hi-Lo Country above a moderate, professional entertainment. Frears has done everything the genre requires, apart from the most crucial one of making us feel that we have been witness to some heartrending loss. Like other outsiders before him, he can only imagine what it was like.
Peckinpah and his kind - the oater auteurs - they knew.