If you saw a lot of movies in the early '70s, then watching "The Hi-Lo Country" is likely to make you feel as if you've stepped into a time warp. Written by Walon Green and directed by Stephen Frears, "The Hi-Lo Country" is something Hollywood hasn't seen in a long time: a western that's trying for a mythic vision of America's past in which the seeds of our current state of corruption will be revealed. Now, that could describe any number of movies -- great ones that broke open that narrow conception, like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "The Wild Bunch" (on which Green is credited as screenwriter), and scores of lousy ones that wallowed in it, pictures that existed only to express the self-loathing of the Vietnam era, and later the Watergate era.
That self-loathing is thankfully absent in "The Hi-Lo Country," which is set in Texas just after the close of World War II. But the movie does have that mixture peculiar to '70s westerns of feeling both inflated and sucked dry. You get the feeling that the filmmakers chose to set it in the vast, flat landscape of Texas so that nothing would get in the way of every spare, symbolic action. The pleasures of westerns are often the pleasures of movement, of watching men and horses charge across the natural stages that the West provides. Shot by Oliver Stapleton, "The Hi-Lo Country" is frequently beautiful to look at, but so static we might as well be looking at still photos. The picture is so damn laconic you could drive Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a Shriner's parade and a troop of bare-assed cheerleaders between the pauses in action and dialogue without disturbing a thing. Apparently Green has been drinking at the same watering hole as Cormac McCarthy, who made the same mistake with the Border Trilogy that Green does here, substituting physical scope for depth. It's as if what happens here has weight simply because of the setting.
Green's story, adapted from Max Evans' novel of the same name, is a lot soapier, though, and it might have been watchable if Frears had played that aspect up and settled for well-crafted melodrama in the tradition of, say, George Stevens. "The Hi-Lo Country" is the old tale about two friends who almost fall out over a woman. Pete Calder (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson) are partners in the cattle business, and Mona (Patricia Arquette) is the married page-boyed pretty who's driving them to distraction. Mona's flirtations with Pete have been minimal -- it's Big Boy she's carrying on with -- but they've been enough to turn Pete's head from Josepha (Penilope Cruz), the good honest woman who's waited for him to return from the Army. You know Mona's made her mark when one of them says, "When she came up against me like silver foil, all fragrance and warm pressure, everything else was gone from my mind."
Of course, you might prefer that line to Big Boy's mother saying, "God knows, shootin's been a curse on our family" (the dialogue here has made me wonder how seriously I can take Green's credit on "The Wild Bunch"), or to the other drama being played out here: the story of how the rise of rich businessmen drove out the country's spirit of freedom and independence. Sam Elliott -- who, with his steel-gray hair and rugged face, keeps on getting better-looking -- is cast here as the Postwar Corruption of the American Dream, the cattle baron putting the squeeze on the little guy. It's not that the notion of industry killing off the traditions of the West is wrong, it's that it's nothing but a clichi here, and there isn't enough to the characters to make us mourn anything that's in danger of passing away.
Perhaps being British has something to do with why Frears was attracted to this material -- it was a chance to do a picture he saw as a bit exotic, working from a script whose pretensions he could rationalize as lifting the material above a mere genre piece. But even when his films have misfired, I wouldn't have thought a director as impudent as he has been would be susceptible to the sort of turgid, humorless reserve on display here. There's not much the actors can do. Even Arquette, one of the most fearless actresses around, is reduced to playing a '40s icon, a Varga girl on the range. The movie desperately needs the shot of energy that Harrelson's initial scenes give it, though his performance quickly becomes manner. Crudup's Pete is more in keeping with the movie's numbing enigmatic pauses and silences. A friend who's seen Crudup on stage swears he's a good actor (the same friend swears the same thing about Calista Flockhart -- hmmm), and not having seen him in the theater I'll allow for that possibility. But nothing here or in Crudup's performance in "Without Limits" has convinced me that he's even an actor. He seems to regard every situation with the same etched, inscrutable glare. There's no way to tell what's going on inside Pete because Crudup's approach shuts out the audience.
There are two signs of life here. One is the marvelous character actor James Gammon as an aging cattleman trying to stick to the old ways. Apart from L.Q. Jones, Gammon must be the only actor alive whose eyes can twinkle though they seem no more than slits. And he's got the damnedest voice -- low and scratchy but surprisingly rounded and resonant. Listening to him talk is something like biting into a piece of blackened meat and tasting the spice and juice beneath the crusty flesh. The movie's other sign of life comes during a honky-tonk dance featuring an appearance by the great country swing singer Don Walser. Walser has been performing this type of music for years, and when you hear him, as on his 1998 CD "Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In," you don't hear anything as dry and dusty as an archivist; you hear someone who never got the word that the type of music he loves went out of style. Walser's music isn't presented as an artifact, it breathes. We get to hear him sing "I'm Gonna Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)," which Elvis covered on 1968's "From Elvis in Memphis." On that "comeback" album, Elvis knew what he had to prove: He approached each track as if it were a litmus test revealing his commitment. Walser's version is the sound of steadfastness so sure it's utterly relaxed. He casually sweeps you up in the song's gentle and bearish embrace. For the few minutes he's singing, you can believe you're in a real place.