Expanding Max Evans’s undemanding 180-page novel into a ponderous two-hour-plus meditation on nothing in particular, director Stephen Frears tries to get by on the built-in resonance of his subject: cowboys in post–World War II New Mexico, a dying breed, conveniently romanticized. As it happens, it’s all a cover-up for a perfunctory, often dreary love-triangle melodrama.
Pete (Billy Crudup), a war veteran (and one of the dullest characters I’ve ever seen in a movie), returns home and decides to try his hand at ranching. Around the same time, he runs into his old friend, the smug, irritable, wild-eyed Big Boy (Woody Harrelson). Inevitably, they end up falling for the same woman, an already married temptress (played by Patricia Arquette as if either drunk or half asleep).
Sam Peckinpah owned the rights to Evans’s 1961 novel at one point, and it’s safe to say that his version (or one by Martin Scorsese, Hi-Lo Country‘s executive producer) would have been significantly more visceral. Working from a screenplay by Walon Green (writer of, what do you know, The Wild Bunch), Frears stumbles into one cliché after another. It’s a poor match of filmmaker and material. Frears directs fastidiously, but without much feeling. And when he runs out of plot (which is often), he simply throws in a bar brawl or a cattle grab. Failing that, he gazes adoringly at the gorgeous prairie landscapes (this is, if not much else, an extremely good-looking movie) or cranks up Carter Burwell’s twangy, insinuating score (effective to begin with, but run into the ground within the first half hour).
The film winds its way toward an acknowledgment of the legacy of male violence, but doesn’t depict it convincingly or say anything especially interesting about it; opening the same day as Paul Schrader’s Affliction, which probes deeper and more inquisitively into the same theme, The Hi-Lo Country can’t help seeming even more inept.