An intimate story of the enduring bond of friendship between two hard-living men, set against a sweeping backdrop: the American West, post-World War II, in its twilight. Pete and Big Boy are masters of the prairie, but ultimately face trickier terrain: the human heart.
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Stephen Frears' "The Hi-Lo Country" is like a juggler trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. It's a romantic-triangle melodrama, a tale of the vanishing west, a saga of sibling rivalry, a male-bonding adventure, a cowpunching travelogue, and a classic small timers vs. big shot story. Zeroing in on any one of theses plot threads might have given Frears and screenwriter Walon Green ("The Wild Bunch") enough meat for an exciting and punchy picture. As it is, the various stories conflict with and detract from one another, leaving us with a film that's ultimately less than the sum of its parts.
Set in the 1950s, "Hi-Lo" centers on two friends at romantic loggerheads. Big Boy (Woody Harrelson) and Pete (Billy Crudup) are World War II vets who believe in cattle driving the old-fashioned way, with horses, lassos, and good friends to share the trail. However, their way of life is being challenged by Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott), a big-time modern-style rancher who's slowly driving the small-time cattlemen out of business and has taken many an honest cowhand, including Big Boy's brother L.B. (Cole Hauser), into his clutches.
Big Boy and Pete throw in with another small-time rancher (James Gammon) to take on Jim Ed, but then a monkey wrench flies into the works. Her name is Mona (Patricia Arquette), she's the wife of Jim Ed's foreman Les (John Diehl), and she starts a passionate affair with Big Boy right under the nose of Pete, who kissed her his first night back in Hi-Lo and who's slowly becoming obsessed with her.
A shame, really, because many of the film's elements are of superior quality. The acting is generally strong across the board. Harrelson has his carefree cowboy persona down cold, and Crudup is an intriguing protagonist as he drinks, broods, and pines over his friend's ill-gotten girl. Cruz does well with her limited screen time, and Elliott, who's always a pleasure to watch, is all silky smooth incipient menace. Sadly, Arquette's performance is one of the cast's few weak spots. Mona is essentially the film's pivotal character, but Arquette, with her little-girl-lost voice, is just not that believable as a prairie seductress.
Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton photographs the film's landscapes with all necessary sweep and grandeur, and the images are well-complimented by a Carter Burwell score that goes blessedly easy on the cornpone Coplandisms. Frears does a good job with his big set pieces, including a tense barroom showdown between Les and Big Boy and a nicely staged blizzard that claims the life of one of our cowhands.
Still, the film seems to be striving for a way to tie all this together into some grand statement about the fall of classic cowboy ideals, the unbridgeable gaps between men and women, about friendship, love and the death of the past, and the whole mess just never clicks into place. There's lots of pretty pictures and fine acting in "The Hi-Lo Country", but as for the film itself, the lo's sadly outweigh the hi's.