The Hi-Lo Country

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The Hi-Lo Country
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Written byWalon Green
Based onThe Hi Lo Country
by Max Evans
Produced by
CinematographyOliver Stapleton
Edited byMasahiro Hirakubo
Music byCarter Burwell
Distributed byGramercy Pictures
Release dates
  • December 30, 1998 (1998-12-30) (Limited)
  • January 22, 1999 (1999-01-22)
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$166,082

The Hi-Lo Country is a 1998 American-Western film directed by Stephen Frears, starring Billy Crudup, Penélope Cruz, Woody Harrelson, Cole Hauser, Sam Elliott, Patricia Arquette, Enrique Castillo, and Katy Jurado. It is set in post-World War II New Mexico and is based on the Western novel by Max Evans.


Pete Calder sets out one morning, reflecting on his intention to kill someone. As he drives, he thinks back on what led him to this point.

When he was young growing up in the Hi-Lo, New Mexico, Pete met and befriended Big Boy Matson, a cowboy. Soon after becoming best friends, World War II breaks out, and both decide to volunteer for military service. While Big Boy is away, Pete returns from the war sooner and is given the opportunity to work for corporate cattle baron Jim Ed Love, but declines. He also meets and begins to fall in love with Mona Birk, the wife of Jim Ed's foreman Les Birk, despite also carrying on a relationship with local Josepha O'Neil.

Big Boy returns home from the war, expecting to return to his old life, and finds that half the town is employed by Jim Ed. Hanging on to the mythic ideals of the American West, Big Boy and Pete team up with an old time rancher Hoover Young to raise cattle the cowboy way.

Big Boy has an antagonistic relationship with Jim Ed, and declines offers to be bought out. Things are peaceful for a while, until Big Boy begins an affair with Mona. Out of friendship for Big Boy, Pete resolves to forget his feelings for her, and devotes himself to Josepha. Meanwhile, the tension between Big Boy and Les begins to grow.

As Pete continuously comes into contact with Mona, he becomes more and more obsessed with her. Josepha confronts Pete about his friend's affair and homewrecking, and in the heat of the exchange, Pete reveals his jealousy of Big Boy's relationship. Josepha leaves dejected, and Pete becomes increasingly depressed by both his unrequited feelings and his dishonesty with those he cares about.

Finally Pete confronts Mona and ask her to end the affair for the sake of her and Big Boy's reputation, but Mona counters that she knows he is infatuated with her. Later at a town dance, Les sees Big Boy and Mona dancing and pulls a gun to shoot Big Boy, but has the gun knocked out of his hand by a crowd member and is beaten brutally by Big Boy. Mona follows Big Boy outside and kisses him.

Big Boy, Mona, Pete, and Josepha spend the rest of the night together, and after visiting a Mexican witch named Meesa, Pete takes Mona outside and has sex with her, but Big Boy too drunk to notice. Josepha comes out and brings Mona back inside, but does not confront Pete. She later tells Pete to "tell Big Boy before she does, or he'll kill you." Pete reflects on having lost the fear of death. In the end it is Big Boy's younger brother, Little Boy, who ends up impulsively killing Big Boy after a brawl after feeling humiliated by his older brother.

In the present, Pete sits in his car outside the church holding Big Boy's memorial. After the funeral, he is given a talking to by the Matson boys' mother, who tells him to spare Little Boy, and that she knew since Big Boy was born that his life would end in violence. Pete approaches Little Boy and tells him he is honoring Mrs. Matson's wishes, but that he will kill him if Little Boy ever slanders Big Boy. He walks off with Mona, who is pregnant, who tells him she told Big Boy about their sexual encounter. They say goodbye, and Pete heads off to start a new life in California with a hint of reuniting with Josepha as Mona notes that she had previously moved there.


Other appearances include musician Rose Maddox as Big Boy's Grandmother, rodeo announcer Bob Tallman as himself, and Chris O'Connell, Leon Rausch, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, & Don Walser as the band.


The film was regarded by critics and film festivals as an example of the "classic" Western movie genre.[1][2]

Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle said, "The traditional settings of Westerns are honored: the saloon, the dance hall, the rodeo, the cattle drive, the snowstorm. Hi-Lo is not only the name of the high-country flatlands where the story takes place, it is also a poker game, and that Western cliche is given a good spin, too."[2]

Stephen Holden of The New York Times said, "In its best moments the movie feels like an epic hybrid of Red River and The Last Picture Show."[3]

The score by Carter Burwell, and the Western swing songs of Floyd Tillman, Vaughn Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Merle Travis, Tex Williams, and Hank Williams and sequence performances by Don Walser and Leon Rausch, were well regarded.[2]


Home media[edit]

On December 18, 2012, Shout! Factory rereleased the film on DVD.[5]


  1. ^ Champlin, Charles (January 1, 1999). "Max Evans: Lone Writer of The Hi-Lo Country". Los Angeles Times.
  2. ^ a b c Graham, Bob (January 15, 1999). "Hi-Lo Cowboys at Home on the Range". San Francisco Chronicle.
  3. ^ Holden Stephen (December 30, 1998). "Hi-Lo Country: Even Cowboys Get the Blues". The New York Times.
  4. ^ "Berlinale: 1999 Prize Winners". Retrieved January 29, 2012.
  5. ^ "The Hi-Lo Country". December 18, 2012 – via Amazon.

External links[edit]