An outstanding performance by Woody Harrelson is the main distinction of "The Hi-Lo Country," a post-war Western with noirish sexual intrigue, the agreeable modesty of which places it quite out of step with modern audience tastes. Stephen Frears' third U.S.-set picture proves reasonably involving but falls short in dramatic tension and visual power.

An outstanding performance by Woody Harrelson is the main distinction of “The Hi-Lo Country,” a post-war Western with noirish sexual intrigue, the agreeable modesty of which places it quite out of step with modern audience tastes. On target in its evocation of a major transitional moment on the range and in American life in general, Stephen Frears’ third U.S.-set picture proves reasonably involving but falls short in dramatic tension and visual power. B.O. prospects aren’t promising.

Max Evans’ 1961 novel about a larger-than-life hellraiser, his affair with a married woman and close friendship with a man who loves the woman was a long-cherished project of Sam Peckinpah, and it’s not hard to see why. It was the co-screenwriter of “The Wild Bunch,” Walon Green, who wrote the elegantly structured adaptation that was finally filmed.

The material’s novelistic ties are evident from the outset, as young Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) begins narrating the tale as he waits outside a church to kill someone yet to emerge. The memory piece rolls the calendar back to the end of the World War II; Pete has just returned to his dusty New Mexico spread from Army duty in Europe and, as he awaits the return from the Pacific of his buddy Big Boy Matson (Harrelson), he is aroused at a dance by a big come-on from Mona (Patricia Arquette), the obviously unhappy wife of Les Birk (John Diehl), himself a flunky of the area’s biggest rancher, Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott).

Pete could have the beautiful Latina Josepha (Spanish thesp Penelope Cruz) if he wished, but her too-sincere, plodding nature bores him. In fact, he becomes entirely smitten by Mona, so he has to take it like a man when he realizes, shortly after Big Boy turns up, that Big Boy and Mona have a very lusty thing going on.

Pete spends the remainder of the tale in various degrees of frustration, depression and stoical self-denial over his dilemma of having to spend more than the advisable amount of time around a woman he’s mad for but who happens to be jumping his best friend’s bones every 15 minutes. Pete’s mooniness and the hopelessness of his situation grow wearisome well before matters get resolved, as Big Boy and Mona are so obviously a perfect match that one wishes Pete would just move on.

Fortunately, Big Boy is a far more interesting character, one whom the writing and Harrelson endow with a powerful life force as well as nicely understated iconographic qualities. The most lively scenes involve Big Boy itching for a confrontation or a fight, and pic’s highlight is a high-stakes card game in which Big Boy takes on the detested minions of corporate rancher Love, an encounter with highly unanticipated consequences.

Without it ever being stated per se, Big Boy is portrayed as the last real cowboy, a man who loves the land and cattle and his woman, lives by his own code of behavior, will abide no man cramping his style, needs to kick some butt once in awhile and, significantly, comes from a succession of men who have been gunned down. Many of Big Boy’s attitudes are familiar from countless Westerns, but Harrelson represents them authentically, with great energy, sly wit and genuine emotion.

Film’s other point of more than usual interest is its view of the changes in postwar America through the prism of a very small rural community. The men return from doing their jobs overseas to find it harder to go their own ways as independent ranchers and cowboys than it used to be; there are jobs to be had, but mainly with the dominant landowner, who is well on his way to running the only game in town. The picture of Anglos and Latinos mixing easily in the bars and dance halls evokes a distinctly different time as well.

While credible, the other thesps aren’t up to Harrelson’s level. Crudup is OK but unexciting as Pete, a character who is rather too transparently the author’s stand-in, while Arquette, similarly, fills the bill but brings nothing extra to the table as the trampy Mona. Cruz, in her American film debut, is rather stiff as Josepha, an inadequately developed role. Several of the supporting players, notably James Gammon as an older rancher and Lane Smith as Love’s card-playing accountant, make strong impressions.

Pic’s climax, which brings the yarn back to Pete sitting outset the church with gun ready and then beyond, is definitely surprising, not at all what might have been guessed initially. Pic conveys a good sense of the terrain in Northern New Mexico (pic was mostly shot around Santa Fe and Las Vegas), but could have used stronger, more incisive images to give the story more weight and backbone. Carter Burwell’s score uncharacteristically becomes a bit overbearing at times.

The Hi-Lo Country

Production

A Gramercy Pictures release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation in association with Martin Scorsese, of a Working Title production with Cappa/De Fina Prods. Produced by Barbara De Fina, Scorsese, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan. Executive producer, Rudd Simmons. Co-producer, Liza Chasin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Walon Green, based on the novel by Max Evans.

With

Big Boy Matson - Woody Harrelson Pete Calder - Billy Crudup Mona Birk - Patricia Arquette Little Boy Matson - Cole Hauser Josepha O'Nei - Penelope Cruz Billy Harte - Darren Burrows Delfino Mondragon - Jacob Vargas Hoover Young - James Gammon Steve Shaw - Lane Smith Meesa - Katy Jurado Jim Ed Love -Sam Elliott Les Birk - John Diehl Levi Gomez - Enrique Castillo Mrs. Matson - Rosaleen Linehan
Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Masahiro Hirakubo; music, Carter Burwell; production and costume designer, Patricia Norris; art director, Russell J. Smith; set decorator, Leslile Morales; sound (Dolby digital/SDDS/DTS), Drew Kunin; assistant director, L. Dean Jones Jr.; casting, Victoria Thomas. Reviewed at Polygram screening room, Beverly Hills, Dec. 2, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.
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