Film Review: How the West was lost

The Big Picture

THE HI-LO COUNTRY (15) DIRECTOR: STEPHEN FREARS, STARRING: BILLY CRUDUP, WOODY HARRELSON, PATRICIA ARQUETTE. 127 MINUTES

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.

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital