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Friday, Nov. 26, 1999

Cowboy noir: beers, steers 'n' Frears

"The Hi-Lo Country" is one of those deceivingly bland-looking films that could easily slip under your radar. It's rare these days to find a cowboy flick worth its weight in cow pies, and the idea of a British director -- Stephen Frears ("My Beautiful Launderette," "Dangerous Liaisons") -- tackling an unfilmed Sam Peckinpah project borders on heresy.

But miss this one and it's your loss: Frears has fashioned a beautiful epitaph to a century's worth of cowboy myths on the big screen, showing how the age immortalized by John Ford disappeared with both a whimper and a bang.

Set in post-World War II New Mexico, in a vast, dusty prairie flattened under big, blue skies, "The Hi-Lo Country" plays as cowboy noir, a tight, passionate tale of lust and revenge. But look closely and you'll see that it also crystalizes the spiritual dilemma that nags at America to this day -- how to resolve a sentimental belief in macho cowboy individualism in an age that requires passive corporate drones.

Based on a 1961 novel written by cowboy-author Max Evans, "The Hi-Lo Country" is both similar to and quite unlike any western you've seen: It embraces such conventional tropes as the cattle drive, the rodeo, the high-stakes poker game and the saloon brawl, but absent is the freedom of movement, the terra incognita and lawless land that defined the Old West. Here land is very much a finite property, and the borders are closing in on the small-time ranchers.

Feeling the squeeze are old friends Pete (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy (Woody Harrelson), a couple of old-school cowboys trying to eke out a living. While they were off serving their country on the Pacific front, cattle baron Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott) was foreclosing on their friends and families, seizing their ranches and consolidating the cattle market.

Reticent Pete is happy just to quietly go his own way, but good ol' Big Boy is spoiling for a fight, making it a point to piss Jim Ed off. Big Boy's short fuse is no doubt sparked by the fact that his younger brother, the whingeing Little Boy (Cole Hauser), is working for Jim Ed in a demeaning servile sort of job.

Making matters more complicated is Big Boy's affair with Mona (Patricia Arquette), the sultry wife of Jim Ed's foreman, Les (John Diehl), which Big Boy flaunts. "One look at her and you know it's worth the risk," he confides to Pete. "Hell, risk might be the best part of it."

Pete sees trouble brewing, and has enough worries already with his cattle dying in a drought, but reluctantly backs his friend. To do this, he must conceal his own long-standing desire for Mona, a desire that is swelled by resentment that Big Boy made the move on Mona, while he sat on his hands.

Arquette is excellent as the temptress here, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who's been following her career (see "Lost Highway"). While most Hollywood actresses gain their reputations though strenuously projecting personality (think Meg Ryan), Arquette just draws you in. No showy moves necessary, just the lilt she'll breathe into a line ("You look good, Pete . . . real good"), or that slow smile that takes on a hotel room's worth of meaning. As Mona, Arquette barely even has to speak; just look at those eyes, glimmering with traces of discontent and desire.

Harrelson is sometimes too big for his roles, but "too much" is just perfect for what's needed here. He brings all his trademark bluster and swagger to the role of Big Boy, a larger-than-life roughneck who thinks he can make the world bend to his alpha-male will. Harrelson captures Big Boy's heroic qualities -- his pride, loyalty and integrity -- but also brings out a disconcerting wildness, his urge to provoke confrontation, to take things too far, like when he slams a gun down on the bar and declares to all who can hear that Mona is "like a good horse . . . she has bottom."

Time and time again, things spin out of control due to his in-your-face sense of righteousness. (Although he sees nothing wrong in stealing another man's wife.) But all this serves to highlight, and render cuttingly poignant, the one instance in which Big Boy lets an affront slide. The film builds to this moment, and by the time you notice it, Big Boy's temper has caught up with him from where he least expected it.

Crudup has the linchpin role, and plays it with a taciturn shyness that conveys Pete's essential (and perhaps sexual) insecurity. In the presence of Big Boy and Mona, both of whom Pete adores, he just kind of disappears into himself. Even with his girlfriend Josepha (Penelope Cruz), Pete can only moon over Big Boy and Mona, saying "their love is deep" (which leaves Josepha more than a little confused). Crudup draws us so far into Pete's perspective, that every time we see a shot of Mona and Big Boy sharing a tender moment, we view it through pangs of envy -- you can almost feel the guy grinding his molars.

Rounding things out are over a half-dozen great minor characters, particularly Elliott's Jim Ed Love, who's sleaze personified, and Cruz's Josepha, a smart girl who sees through guys' machismo in a second. Both Elliott and Cruz bring more to a few scenes than most actors can manage in an entire film.

With such a great range of performances on display, it's inevitable that Frears' direction will be in the background, but suffice to say that his sense of timing is perfect -- languid enough to capture the feel of the locale, and sharp enough to crank up the tension before things ever get dull. But most of all, the director maintains enough distance from the material to let us make of it what we will. Admire Pete and Big Boy for their rugged independence and violent refusal to back down from a fight, or -- like Josepha -- view them as "stupid, horny cowboys." No doubt the truth is in the duality.

"I had no fear of dying. My fear was how I'd live with all the pain I caused." That's the state Pete finds himself in when he gives in to his worst impulses and betrays all those closest to him. Let me leave you in suspense and, hopefully, wanting to see "The Hi-Lo Country." Few films this year have had this much to say on the complex dynamics that shape and break friendships.

"The Hi-Lo Country" opens tomorrow at Cinema Rise in Shibuya.

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