At the end of the 1946 western classic, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, Wyatt Earp says goodbye to the late Doc Halliday’s former fiance, tells her he is going to California and rides off into the sunset. In an obvious effort to recapture Hollywood’s golden age of westerns, a similar scene occurs at the very end of THE HI-LO COUNTRY, but THE HI-LO COUNTRY is, in reality, an anti-western that defends adultery and updates the theme of the evil cattle baron into an anti-capitalist politics of envy.
Woody Harrelson plays Big Boy Mattson, who becomes friends with Pete (Billy Crudup) after Pete sells him his horse. Both men own small ranches in the Southwest just before World War II. Pete narrates the story of these two fun-loving cowboys who enjoy lots of hard drinking and flirting with ladies.
Both men go off to fight the Germans and the Japanese. When they come back, however, they find that an older man named Jim Ed has stayed home from the war to become the town’s richest cattle baron by squeezing out the little guy and foreclosing on people’s homes. Resentment among the independent cowboys has built up against Jim Ed, and Big Boy is angry to find his little brother, Little Boy, working for Jim Ed.
Before Pete and Big Boy reunite after the war, however, Pete one night meets a former girlfriend named Mona, played by Patricia Arquette. Mona flirts with Pete during a dance, even though she is now married to Jim Ed’s foreman, who also stayed home during the war. One other night, Big Boy invites Pete to meet his new girlfriend, and Pete is surprised to find it is Mona. Pete hides his strong feelings for Mona and even facilitates Big Boy’s affair behind her husband’s back. Meanwhile, Big Boy and Pete work for the second-largest cattleman in town, Hoover. They combine their herds with his during old-fashioned cattle drives. After several confrontations and insults occur between the rival camps, and between Big Boy and his little brother, the situation comes to a head, leading to a surprising, tragic conclusion.
HI-LO COUNTRY is based on a novel by acclaimed western author Max Evans. Woody Harrelson as Big Boy and Sam Elliott as Jim Ed turn in the two best performances in this artistically uneven movie. Harrelson is completely believable in the role of the wild Big Boy, who loves to take chances and stand up against Jim Ed’s authority. Elliott has a wonderfully sly twinkle in his eye as he watches Pete, Big Boy and his foreman fight over Mona. Billy Crudup is a little less believable as Pete, but Patricia Arquette gives a silly, monotone performance as Mona. Consequently, it is hard to see the attraction for this woman and hard to believe there aren’t sexier, more available women in the area. Pete, in fact, has an affair with one of the women in the area, a pretty Spanish woman named Josepha, who clearly cares a lot for Pete.
Another problem with the story as filmed is that several scenes between Mona, Pete and Big Boy are overwrought. This further damages the story’s credibility. This is really a shame because the filmmakers have fashioned an entertaining southwestern cowboy atmosphere.
Morally, however, THE HI-LO COUNTRY has a strong pagan worldview that actually trashes the traditional genre of the movie western. In essence, the movie defends both Pete and Big Boy’s adultery, and their hard drinking, ruffian ways. To combine such an advocacy of sin with the traditional western icon of the freedom-loving cowboy is truly dreadful and deserves total condemnation. THE HI-LO COUNTRY also includes a scene where the two cowboys and their mistress seriously seek advice from a fortune teller. When is Hollywood ever going to give us another positive old-fashioned western like 1985’s SILVERADO, which starred Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Scott Glenn, and Kevin Costner as positive heroes?
Finally, although many American movies in the past have had rich men as villains, and many westerns have shown big ranchers taking advantage of little ranchers, THE HI-LO COUNTRY also turns its villain, Jim Ed, into a coward who stays home to earn money while the adulterous cowboys go off to fight for their country. This politics of envy creates a disturbing attack on being a successful rancher. Just because Jim Ed is a better businessman than the other ranchers and cowboys, why does that make him a man deserving of such contempt?
Strong pagan worldview with strong anti-capitalist sentiments expressed against wealthy rancher; 52 obscenities, some mild, & 11 mostly strong profanities; moderate action violence with a couple fistfights, men fall off horses, some gunplay, blizzard threatens cowboys, drunken cowboy urinates on foe, man suffers heart attack, & one murder; two brief scenes of depicted fornication & adultery & implied fornication & adultery; upper male nudity, implied female nudity, obscured rear nudity, & women's underwear shown; alcohol use & drunkenness; smoking; mention of fortune teller & people go to see fortune teller; man admits he & his family are not churchgoers; & miscellaneous immorality, such as arguing with sibling, insulting sibling & other people, & confusing being a cowboy with hard drinking & whoring.