Published January 1, 1999
The Hi Lo Country, based on a novel by Max Evans published in 1961, has a weird period flavor to it even though, as directed by Stephen Frears, it is also very much of the nineties. You can see in it elements of Hemingway’s austere sensualism and bedrock conviction that literary art mainly consists of recording one’s experience of pleasure and pain. There is also a celebration of masculine comradeship as confirmed by love of the same woman (Jules and Jim came out the year after Mr. Evans’s novel), and this is combined with the nostalgia for the old West which was the dominant note in many of the Hollywood westerns of the period. In fact, you could say that from Shane (1953) to The Last Picture Show (1971) there was hardly a Western-themed movie made without it. No wonder Sam Peckinpah was the first to try to adapt the novel for the screen.
After more than a quarter century in which what westerns there are have been mainly political attacks on the dominant culture’s treatment of the Indians, or the workers, or the environment, it is a little strange once again to be asked to feel that old regret for the disappearing cowboy and the time when, as the opening voiceover tells us, “things were a lot simpler than they are now.” Set in New Mexico in the immediate post-war period, Hi-Lo Country ends with an elegiac tribute to “the old ways”—among them, of course, the sight of men on horseback herding cattle to market instead of trucking them there. “The pure, simple joy of a cattle drive—nothing ever sets a man so high. . .This is what I was born to do,” as the young hero’s voiceover puts it.
But the old ways specifically referred to here are drinking and fighting and “hell-raisin’,” which includes screwing around with another man’s wife. And it is not quite clear that this is not what we are mainly meant to feel nostalgic about. The story concerns the friendship between Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson) and the amour fou of both men for Mona Birk (Patricia Arquette), wife of the foreman of cattle baron Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott). Jim Ed and his smug entourage represent progress and profit and trucking your cattle to market. Both for Mona and for Big Boy’s younger brother, Little Boy (Cole Hauser), who works for Jim Ed, the small-time, wildcat cowboys Pete and Big Boy represent a kind of authenticity that they have sold out for safety and security.
If you don’t instinctively respond to this proposition, you won’t get a lot out of this movie. I’m afraid I don’t respond to it, though I admire the skill with which Frears and his screenwriter, the old Peckinpah associate Waylon Green, have brought the story to the screen. Just the fact that Jim Ed trucks his cattle to market instead of driving them, and that he made money during the war, do not in themselves seem enough to me to account for Big Boy’s hatred of him, and I am now too old, I suppose, to be impressed with the existential purity of his approach to life, represented by his spurning a piece of good advice from Jim Ed on the grounds that “I don’t care about the goddamn future.”
And indeed he doesn’t. All he seems to care about is drinking and whoring and (so we’re told, though we don’t see much of it) horses. By the way, I know booze was cheaper in those days, but could a cowboy trying to eke a living out of a few acres in New Mexico really have afforded to spend so much time and money on whisky in the 1940s? There are, it’s true, reasons for feeling sympathy for Big Boy. There’s his love for Mona, for instance. “I can feel every inch of you, whether we’re close together or far away. . .You’re in my blood,” he tells her.” There’s also the altruism of his approach to ranching: “Who cares about profit when it’s this much fun being a cowboy?” Say a bad word about profit and everyone in Hollywood, the most profit-obsessed place in America outside Wall Street, will love you.
For me there is above all the picture’s well-wrought representation of what male friendship is, or used to be. When warned that Les (John Diehl)—Mona’s husband—is going to kill Big Boy, Pete says, matter of factly, “Then I will have to kill Les.” At this point, as with the movie’s skillful use of country and western music of the period, I confess that the nostalgia trap catches me. But it doesn’t quite work for the picture as a whole. In a rare moment of insight into himself, Big Boy says, “It makes no sense what I’m doing, but I got to keep doing it.” For us, however, at this distance in time from the period in which the story is set, it’s hard to see why.