Herding clichés

All the elements of a cowboy classic—except for plot, character, and story.

SOME MOVIES PRESENT a problem, then avoid it for as long as they can, because if the problem were resolved the movie would have be about something. In The Hi-Lo Country, aspiring rancher Pete (Billy Crudup) is in love with Mona (Patricia Arquette), even though he has a devoted girlfriend named Josepha (Pen鬯pe Cruz), and Mona is not only married to the foreman of an opposing ranch, she's also having an affair with Big Boy (Woody Harrelson), Pete's best friend. This central conflict is laid out in the first 15 minutes or so. For the rest of the movie, nothing changes.

The Hi-Lo Country

directed by Stephen Frears

starring Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette

now playing at Pacific Place

Of course, there's plenty of action to distract the audience from this essential stasis. A big-time rancher named Jim Ed (Sam Elliott) has bought up much of the land around the New Mexico town of Hi-Lo. Much to the disgust of Big Boy and Pete, Jim Ed is bringing modern techniques to cattle ranching—though the movie never tells us what the actual changes are, aside from shipping cattle in trucks instead of driving them across the countryside. Of course, since this is a movie, most of what cowboys do is drive cattle across the countryside, so cattle trucking is a serious threat to their way of life.

This feud results in some barroom brawls and steely-eyed confrontations. There's also a high-stakes poker game, a rodeo, a blizzard, a deathbed passing-of-the-torch, a Mexican fortune teller . . . pretty much every Western clich頩maginable except a shoot-out on Main Street. After an hour or so, Mona leaves her husband and officially becomes Big Boy's girl—which leaves the Josepha-Pete-MonaBig Boy quadrangle completely unaltered.

Even worse, none of this action deepens any of the characters. Pete endures everything with a worried grimace; Big Boy starts and ends as a blindly passionate, big-hearted galoot; Mona might have a shady past, but it's never explored, and it doesn't seem to matter if she's lying about it or not. The actors are pleasant enough and their cheekbones blend well with the New Mexico scenery, but they're never surprising or even very intriguing. The supporting cast does a little better: Sam Elliott, with his easy, ambiguous grin, comes across as a far more complex character than either of our heroic cowboys—which only weakens the already vague blather about the decay of the cowboy way. Josepha is as pretty as Mona and seems twice as smart; after awhile, you just want to smack Pete upside the head and shout, "Get over it!"

At the end (if you really must see this movie, don't read this last paragraph), Big Boy gets killed, for reasons that have nothing to do with Pete or Mona. At the funeral, Mona reveals that a crucial event—an event that might have changed Pete and Big Boy's relationship, or at least have given the audience an insight into Big Boy's character—took place off-screen some time ago. Pete shrugs ruefully, says goodbye to Mona, and takes off for California, where he will presumably continue to behave like an idiot, because there's no evidence that he's learned a damned thing.

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