Hi-Lo Country, The

Director: Frears Stephen

Clearly a labour of love for producer Martin scorsese and director Stephen Frears (whose last collaboration, The Grifters, was Frears’ best film), The Hi-Lo Country is a post-World War Two Western based on Max Evan’s fine 1961 novel. The setting is the cattle lands of New Mexico, the Hi-Lo Country of the title, where small-time ranchers and best buddies Pete (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy (Woody Harrelson) are reunited after war service. The somewhat shy Pete is in awe of the boisterous, hard-living Big Boy, who’s something of a throwback to the wild ways of the Old West. Fiercely independent, the duo are united in their hatred of the new corporate ranchers as represented by money-grubbing Jim Ed (Sam Elliott), but silently divided because of their shared love of Mona (Patricia Arquette), the unhappy wife of another rancher.
The Hi-Lo Country was originally a Sam Peckinpah project, and the present producers had the good sense to hire Peckinpah’s writer on The Wild Bunch, Walon Green, to adapt Evan’s novel. Director Frears doesn’t make the project his own in the way Peckinpah would have done, but he’s clearly in sympathy with the sentiments of the piece and eventually focuses in on the darker aspects of the drama after indulging in some enjoyable if protracted scene setting. Indeed, with Arquette’s Mona coming on like a femme fatale, and Crudup’s Pete suffering from the frustrations of self-denial, Frears almost turns this hybrid modern Western into a film noir akin to The Grifters. Overall though, he’s true to the spirit of Evan’s semi-autobiographical memoir, which celebrates an extraordinary free spirit who was perhaps the last real cowboy.
Frears is also wise enough to realise that the larger-than-life figure of Big Boy is the key character, and hs casting of Woody Harrelson makes perfect sense. A hellraiser who nevertheless has his own code of morality and a fierce loyalty to his friends, Big Boy has some of the qualities of a mythic Western figure. Harrelson manages to imbue the character with considerable authenticity, energy and wit. Big Boy is a sort of John Wayne figure, says Frears, who doesn’t consider The Hi-Lo country a Western in the classic sense but admits that it forced him to deal with some familiar Western icons. Appropriately, he has dedicated the film to his mentor, Lindsay Anderson, the English director who was a great fan of John Ford’s Westerns.

Book Tickets