The Mild Bunch

Jan 27, 1999 at 4:00 am

Directed by Stephen Frears

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose," Kris Kristofferson sings in his most beguiling song, "Me and Bobby McGee." Stephen Frears' The Hi-Lo Country tries in vain to be just as lyrical about love and liberty. In this 20th-century Western, a cattle rancher named Pete (Billy Crudup) narrates the short, unhappy life of his cantankerous best pal Big Boy (Woody Harrelson) and Big Boy's affair with a knockout named Mona (Patricia Arquette), the married woman who enthralls both men. It could have been called Me and Big Boy Matson.

The setup should be perfect for a tale of unleashed passion. In post-World War II New Mexico, where the film is set, there is nothing left to lose. While these boys were at war, a ruthless cattleman named Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott) bought up land and modernized operations, making it impossible for small ranchers like them to compete in the marketplace. For as long as he can, Big Boy, a natural horseman and cowpoke, is determined to work and live as heartily as the old-time cowboys who taught him. That means conducting wasteful cattle drives instead of loading his stock onto trucks; it also means having an affair with the wife of Jim Ed's foreman.

Pete is so in awe of him and indebted to him that it's hard to tell whether he cares more for the sex-charged, elusive Mona or the giant-hearted Big Boy. A straight-shooting beauty named Josepha (Penelope Cruz) virtually lays herself at Pete's feet. But Pete can't keep his mind off Mona or the bond he imagines she and Big Boy share: a pagan lust that Jim Ed's gang can never squelch. It's a volcanic, frontier-Bronte sort of love.

Sadly, no matter how hard Pete pushes the word "freedom" in his narration, the movie lacks the exhilaration of emotional release. Frears has taken a roistering novel that Sam Peckinpah wanted to film for years and turned it into a polished, lifeless curio.

Max Evans' 1961 book is a teeming piece of Americana. It isn't merely about the last stand of the good ole cowboy; it also concerns the persistence of Old West eccentricity and plainspoken individuality. What's ticklish as well as truthful about the novel is the way its romantic pentagon (Big Boy, Mona, Pete, Josepha and Mona's husband) settles into a communal tragicomedy. Evans' book is more akin to Steinbeck's Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat than to a conventional Western. One moment Pete is describing a tryst with Josepha, the next he's rattling off a series of anecdotes about a local character named Horsethief Willy, who marked his retirement from the rodeo by pretending that a bull was tearing off his leg. To get acquainted with men like him, Pete says in the book's narration, "is to begin to understand the Hi Lo country." But you never understand "the Hi Lo country" in this movie, because the film subordinates everyone and everything to the plot. (Jim Ed would applaud this efficiency.)

Walon Green, a gifted writer for big screen (1982's The Border) and small (Law & Order, NYPD Blue), seemed the perfect choice to adapt the novel. After all, he scripted Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969). No less an authority than Evans has said, "Walon was the first to break the back of the story.... Walon captured the soul of the story." Green does a surgically clean job of backbreaking. But Evans himself may not realize how the "soul of the story" is embedded in its wildly curving spine. The movie removes the novel's crucial vertebrae -- a whole range of citizens exercising earthy intuitions. And it cripples the picaresque charm of men and women careening unselfconsciously from Hi-Lo crises to high jinks.

A filmmaker of Peckinpah's expansive stamp might have pressed the brawling community and volatile landscape into the raw juice of the love story. But Frears goes for crabbed intensity, not rambunctious feeling. And the atmospherics here are disappointing. Frears may have scoured the Southwest for photogenic locations, but as a director he never puts you there. So the love story stands alone, taking on an unwarranted weight.

When Mona tries to explain why she adores Big Boy, she says that "there are no fancy words for it"; they simply "fit" or "mesh." That's the only explanation, and it's smothered in Arquette's fuzzy expressions and halting line readings. It's as if she seeks a poetic resonance worthy of the movie's misbegotten gravity. She doesn't get there. And that leaves Pete looking ridiculous. For the film to work, we needn't share his obsession with Mona, but we should understand why it's consuming him. Instead, we wonder why he'd risk insulting the desirable Josepha to sleep with this confused woman.

Because Mona's husband (John Diehl) works for big shot Jim Ed, the town's have-nots side with Big Boy. Too bad the brawls and face-offs are as choreographed as the ones in West Side Story. For a film that celebrates men stomping merrily through wide-open spaces, there's scarcely any action. And that smidgen is overly symbolic. Frears merely illustrates the acts that should be the guts of the movie and the basis of Big Boy's myth. He fails to convey the hazardous beauty and excitement of one last great cattle drive or a trek through a blinding blizzard. Still, Frears' studied imagery alone can't account for the movie's flatness. What's fatal is his covert moralism. He pulls back from his characters' ferocious appetites. For example, in one of the book's reckless high points, Big Boy unintentionally kills Jim Ed's weak-hearted money man with a sadistic, exorbitant poker bet. In the film Frears directs the scene for ominous foreboding, not black comedy; he won't let us savor the sardonic pleasure Big Boy takes in this homicidal stroke of luck. Peckinpah had a genius for catching you up in the mixed virtues and passions of his characters and then forcing you to face the outcome. In this picture Frears tips his hand -- something he never did in dynamic work such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Grifters (1990) and the underrated Mary Reilly (1996).

We can't be sure who'll pull the trigger, but we know that Big Boy will be shot. The way Frears and Green have winnowed down the subplots, the climactic twist comes as no surprise. And the actors don't have the wiggle room to hit on revelations of their own. Harrelson at least lives up to the role of an irresistible life force; he energizes the film with his unsettling point-counterpoint of physical menace and skewed humor. But Crudup, so charismatic in Robert Towne's neglected Without Limits -- which failed even to receive a St. Louis release -- turns into a mope; he's only wonderful here when the whole sorry mess is behind him. Elliott looks promising as Jim Ed Love but gets stranded in a single slimy smile. It's as if he's posing for a rogue's gallery.

Lee Marvin once told Evans that he didn't understand why Peckinpah kept buying the rights to The Hi-Lo Country when he'd already stolen the novel for an hourlong TV road comedy called The Losers. When Evans countered that all Peckinpah had filched was a farcical coon hunt, Marvin replied, "That's the best part of the book." The coon hunt doesn't make it into the film. This movie is wrongheadedly severe. When Pete sums it up and says he'll always remember the good times, you can't remember any.

Opens Jan. 29 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir

Last year's murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming should spur renewed interest in this first-rate documentary about a similar hate crime that took place on New Year's Eve 1993 in a small Nebraska town. Teena Brandon, a striking-looking 20-year-old woman with a history of check-kiting, was brutally executed, along with two of her friends. The murders occurred just after she was exposed as passing as a man, and raped and beaten on Christmas Day. According to Teena's many girlfriends, "Brandon Teena," as she was known, was a "good kisser who knew how to treat a woman." Such skills inflamed the jealousy of local male rivals. This may sound like the stuff of trash television, but filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir have created something far too provocative for Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer to handle in the form of safe, theatricalized shocks. This is the real deal. Recounting Brandon's story through interviews with her friends, relatives and even her murderers, the filmmakers -- without hectoring or finger-pointing of any kind -- underscore the extreme danger incurred by those who stray from assigned gender roles. Especially revealing are interviews with a local sheriff, whose fascination with Brandon's real gender took precedence over the filing of rape charges. Anyone in doubt regarding the need for hate-crimes legislation is encouraged to see this film.

Plays at 7 p.m. Jan. 29-31 at Webster University.
-- David Ehrenstein

Directed by Robert Iscove

There's nothing wrong with this flimsy teen romantic comedy that couldn't be cured with telekinesis and a bucket of pig's blood. Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as a smart, sensitive heartthrob at a swank LA high school. He socially rehabilitates a misfit art student (Rachael Leigh Cook) first to win a bet, then to win her love. Jodi Lyn O'Keefe plays the bubble-headed golden girl who sets the plot in motion when she dumps Prinze for a gross, obstreperous "star" of MTV's The Real World (Matthew Lillard). Despite its sprinkling of goofy-vicious gags, the movie aims to recall My Fair Lady more than it does Carrie, down to a jarringly choreographed prom scene that tries (and fails) to make us feel as if we could dance all night.

Director Robert Iscove and writer R. Lee Fleming Jr. work everything out way too cleanly and wholesomely. Cook and Prinze don't just fall in love -- they also teach each other crucial life lessons. Under his influence she "opens up"; once she does she becomes a top contender both for prom queen and an art scholarship. Under her influence he realizes that he doesn't have to have "all the answers." Of course, you may wonder whether Prinze's confusion is all to the good. A fistful of Ivy League acceptances molder unanswered in his drawer; he may wind up like the guy in the FedEx commercial who becomes a swimming-pool cleaner because he never received the letter welcoming him to Harvard. (Cook's character's father is a swimming-pool cleaner, too.) Cook's "Geeky Girl" says she feels like "Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, except for that whole hooker thing." Apart from the occasional funny line, the movie spins down like a failed pilot for the WB network.

Opens Jan. 29.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Sidney Lumet

In this remake -- oddly uncredited -- of the 1980 urban folktale written and directed by John Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands, Sharon Stone takes over the title role, a tough-talking New York City moll struggling to protect a 6-year-old boy (Jean-Luke Figueroa) from the gangsters who've massacred his family. The material is only a notch or two away from Damon Runyon, but it has its appeal, and the first half of the movie plays more compellingly than you might expect. Stone showed some real chops in The Mighty (alongside Rowlands) last year, and she does heartfelt work here as well. Figueroa is surprisingly vigorous and funny; he seems like a real kid, and Stone doesn't have to strain in a vacuum to create a sense that they've become friends.

At about midpoint, however, flat pacing and aimless dialogue -- the new script is by Steven Antin -- start to take their toll, and the movie just peters out. Sidney Lumet directed, with far less crispness than he's known for. George C. Scott projects an avuncular menace in the small part of an Irish-American mob boss, and Barry McEvoy's hilariously deadpan line readings make him stand out from the pack of standard-issue movie thugs. Jeremy Northam, Cathy Moriarty, Mike Starr, Tony DiBenedetto and Bonnie Bedelia also appear.

Now playing.
-- M.V. Moorhead