The Hi-Lo Country

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The Hi-Lo Country

Supposedly, Sam Peckinpah had always wanted to bring Max Evans' novel The Hi-Lo Country to the screen. Unfortunately, British director Stephen Frears is a sorry substitute for the legendary filmmaker, and even with a script by Walon Green (who wrote the screenplay for The Wild Bunch) and Martin Scorsese as producer, he brings little life to Evans' portrait of America's recent past. When wild Woody Harrelson and his withdrawn best friend Billy Crudup return to Texas after WWII, they find a different world than the one they left behind. The days of cowboy innocence are gone, and ruthless ranchers like Sam Elliott have moved in during their absence. Technology has begun to replace true grit, and Crudup and Harrelson have trouble adapting to this more modern life. But we see little of their actual ranch work as, about halfway through, The Hi-Lo Country shifts from a last-of-the-cowboys epic to just another tale of romantic obsession. The biggest source of melodrama in this soap opera is Patricia Arquette, the town siren, who divides her affections among Crudup, Harrelson, and her husband (who happens to work for Elliott). Bar fights ensue, Crudup mopes with his runner-up girlfriend Penélope Cruz, and Harrelson whoops and hollers a lot. Of course, the vistas are beautiful, but movies are more than just moving pictures. The Hi-Lo Country features some of the most stilted Western dialogue in years, delivered mostly with something approaching boredom, and Crudup's voiceover is more a lazy crutch than a narrative necessity. The dusty allure of the Southwest has been a great source of inspiration for so many movies that it's disappointing to see that mystique wasted here, where no amount of stare-downs, poker games, and whiskey-swigging can manage to shoot the film out of the cliché corral.

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