This character study, set in New Mexico in the early 40s, begins with an enigmatic narrative that infuses `The Hi-Lo Country,' directed by Stephen Frears, with a tension that ultimately runs high throughout the entire film. The story focuses on the friendship between a couple of cowboys, Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson), who upon returning from the war are trying to make a go of the cattle business, while bucking some stiff competition from the local cattle baron, Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott). At the same time, Pete becomes aware that he is not alone in his obsession with a married woman, Mona (Patricia Arquette); Big Boy has it bad for her, too, and she just happens to be the wife of Jim Ed's foreman, Les Birk (John Diehl). And, as usually happens with a situation involving obsession, things quickly begin to get sticky for all concerned. Big Boy, it seems, is the one headed for trouble; he's hot-tempered, stubborn, and fearless to a point bordering on stupidity. Pete, on the other hand, has a good head on his shoulders and has a couple of things going for him: One is a woman named Josepha (Penelope Cruz), who cares deeply for him, and the other is his unwavering loyalty to Big Boy. The tension continues to mount, and the situation is complicated further by the fact that Big Boy isn't exactly discreet about his feelings for Mona, nor of his disdain for Jim Ed Love, for whom his younger brother, Little Boy (Cole Hauser) now works. Inevitably, things come to a head; but when it happens, the arena in which it transpires is something of a surprise, though not entirely unexpected.
Frears does a good job of capturing the essence of another time and place that seems so near and yet so far away. The world was changing around them, but in the Hi-Lo country there were still cowboys who punched cattle and drove the herd to market on horseback. Theirs is a fairly self-contained world, far removed from anything that is happening elsewhere; if a butterfly flaps it's wings in New York, it isn't going to affect Pete or Big Boy. Frears takes a look at the difference between the two men, Big Boy, who lives primarily for the moment (or so it would seem), and Pete, who is more apt to consider the consequences of his decisions, except, that is, when it comes to Mona. But even in that respect, it's Pete who ultimately shows some restraint. And Frears maintains the tension by keeping the situation between the men and Mona precariously balanced on the fence. You know that someone is bound to fall, but you don't know who it will be, where or when.
Crudup is convincing as Pete, bringing him to life with a reserved, understated performance. He brings an intelligent and introspective quality to the character that leads you to believe that Pete is always cognizant of what is going on around him, and where it's all heading. With Big boy, on the other hand, you never know if he's ever really aware of his situation, or if he just doesn't care. As Big Boy, Harrelson gives what may be his best performance ever. His portrayal is that of a true, rugged individual who keeps his deepest feelings to himself, but just may be a bit more savvy than he lets on. Initially, it appears that Big Boy and Pete are opposite sides of the same coin, but in the end you realize that they are not so different from one another after all.
As Mona, Arquette gives a somewhat subdued performance. Though attractive, she doesn't exactly exude the kind of sensuality that would seemingly elicit the obsessiveness of the men that is called for by the story, especially in Pete's case. Knowing what you know about the characters involved, it is hard to believe that Pete would look past the lovely and more alluring Josepha for even a second glance at Mona.
The supporting cast includes James Gammon (Hoover), Darren E. Burrows (Billy), Lane Smith (Steve) and Jacob Vargas (Delfino). A good, solid drama, `The Hi-Lo Country' may not be entirely original, but Frears has a nice touch and gives it a sense of realism that will get you emotionally involved with the characters and their story. And, upon reflection, it's a glimpse of a world that not that long ago was so much bigger than it is today. I rate this one 7/10.