Hi-Lo Country, The (1998 with Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup)

USA / 1998

Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Max Evans, Walon Green

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette, Cole Hauser, Penelope Cruz, Sam Elliott,

Although adopted by Peckinpah and later considered by Scorsese, this moody western is more redolent of John Ford, whose depth and power are echoed successfully by British director Stephen Frears.

As they return to their homeland in Hi-Lo, New Mexico after World War Two, cowboys Big Boy Matson and Pete Calder (Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup) reunite. Things have changed, with former smallholders bought out by local rancher Jim Love (Sam Elliott) and Matson and Calder decide to enter business together. Their first obstacle is Mona (Patricia Arquette), an old flame of Pete’s who begins an affair with Matson.

Trying to forget, Calder returns to the loyal Josepha (Penelope Cruz) and watches his plans unravel thanks to infidelity, rivalry and Matson’s hot-headed younger brother (Cole Hauser), who decides to go and work for Love, against the wishes of Big Boy, whose unpredictable behaviour threatens everyone’s future…

Frears was introduced to Ford’s work while working as Lindsay Anderson’s theatrical assistant, and the American auteur’s imprimatur is all over this mature and compelling story. Matson and Calder’s predicament, returning home to find their skills obsolete thanks to technology, is not the genre’s average plot, and Frears approaches it with the avowed intention of making “a grown-up film.”

He achieves that and more, using the New Mexico landscapes to underwrite the characters’ emotional paths, eliciting a lot of impact from their solitude (Frears hints at autobiography, with his bleak wartime childhood allowing for empathy).

Crudup outshines Harrelson on screen – the latter seems miscast – while Cruz and Arquette are marginalised, but do well. It’s great to see Katy Jurado in a small role, adding another classy horse opera to a cv which included High Noon, One-Eyed Jacks and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

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