The Hi-Lo Country

Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup in The Hi-Lo Country


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 July


Potsdam Conference, 1945

On this day in 1945, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman arrived in Potsdam, where they were over the next two weeks to decide the shape of the world in the wake of the Second World War. The three powers had met before, at Yalta, in 1945 while the war was still coming to an end, when Franklin Roosevelt was still alive, and before then in Tehran in 1943, when it had started to look like the Allies might be triumphant. Germany had surrendered nine weeks before Potsdam, and the conference largely was about Germany’s punishment – borders were to be rolled back, the country partitioned, industry was to be dismantled, Germans in surrounding countries were to be expelled, reparations were to be paid. The conference also issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling on the unconditional surrender of Japan, or else it would face “prompt and utter destruction”.




The Hi-Lo Country (1998, dir: Stephen Frears)

Westerns so often set out to operate at a mythic level that it’s often a shock when something drifts by that locates what we’re watching in a specific time – a horseless carriage or a newspaper, say. Stephen Frears’s The Hi-Lo Country is every inch the classic western, yet it’s quite deliberately set in a recognisable time, right after the end of the Second World War, when men returned from vanquishing Hitler and tried to pick up where they had left off.
Westerns also are often about the end of the Old West, how lawlessness was superseded by the joys and pains of civilisation. Here the concern is the death of the New West, and how the mechanised world of agri-business was beginning to flex its muscles and kill off the guys-on-horseback model. But it would be too boring to watch something like that. So instead how about two rancher dudes who fall for the same gal, a gal who’s already married, to the foreman of their arch rival? Fleshing out the twin roles of the returning veterans are Billy Crudup as the go-getting Pete who fancies a bit of steering and rearing the old-fashioned way, Woody Harrelson as the hollering ball of tics Big Boy. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette plays the no-good floozy Mona, who’s hot for Big Boy. And there’s a shimmering Penelope Cruz as Pete’s girlfriend Josepha, though it’s a half-hearted affair on his part since Pete’s in love with Mona. Sam Peckinpah spent years trying to get The Hi-Lo Country made but it was the British Frears who managed it. And he delivers the full western deal – saloons and cattle drives and poker games and rodeos and dance halls, with a Western swing soundtrack featuring Hank Williams, Merle Travis, a further injection of late-1940s modern to remind us that these guys are anachronisms and that they’re fighting a losing battle – man against mechanisation.
This theme apart, the film doesn’t break new ground in terms of style or content, and along with its side stories – of Sam Elliott the local cattle baron, Cole Hauser as Big Boy’s brother Little Boy – it also has a large number of horses to saddle up. This has led to it being marked down in some quarters. And it’s true that it does take its time getting going. But it’s a beautifully wrought character study once it does get moving, another of its joys being the way it luxuriates in the rolling New Mexico landscapes – captured beautifully by Frears regular Oliver Stapleton, who brings a touch of Leone to the table. It’s that sort of film.



Why Watch?


  • Another enjoyably over-the-top Harrleson performance
  • An early English-speaking role for Cruz
  • Oliver Stapleton’s lush cinematography
  • A villainous Sam Elliott


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Hi-Lo Country – Watch it now at Amazon





The Messenger

Ben Foster, The Messenger


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



13 March


Henry Shrapnel dies, 1842

On this day in 1842, Major General Henry Shrapnel, British army officer, died aged 80, at his home, Peartree House, Southampton, UK.

It was he who is supposed to have invented the “spherical case” bomb, which exploded in mid-air (there is every likelihood that it was in fact a French engineer called Bernard Forst de Bélidor). A hollow cannonball filled with lead shot, it was designed to inflict massive damage on people.

Until then cannonballs had been solid and had achieved maximum impact when used against ships – it was the massive splintering of oak that caused death and injury to the sailors, rather than the ball itself.

The new device was first demonstrated at the time of the siege of Gibraltar (1779-1783) but became decisive at the battle of Fort New Amsterdam (Surinam) in 1804.

As a result of this victory, a delighted British government granted Shrapnel an annual pension. Shells made according the Shrapnel principles continued to be manufactured only until the end of the First World War, though the fragmentation resulting from the explosion of artillery shells, and fragmentation in general, has borne Shrapnel’s name ever since.




The Messenger (2009, dir: Oren Moverman)

The film that seemed designed to welcome Ben Foster into the place next to current hipster princeling Ryan Gosling – as the thin-faced Steve McQueen and Paul Newman of our time – is almost a two-hander.

Though here Foster is paired up with Woody Harrelson, to play army officers whose duty it is it convey “the message” to the next of kin of people who have died in conflict.

It’s a story told in episodes, the effects of the news registering on the faces of one hapless character after another – Steve Buscemi blurs on, Samantha Morton hangs around a bit longer – while in fact the film is subtly dealing with the effects of grief on the men who have to deliver the news, how it forces them to confront mortality at one remove, and in some way spooks them – the tough outer shell, the gallows humour.

If Foster, the war hero properly pissed off at having to run around like some grim postman, is the latest iteration of the seriously moody actor (Gosling, Ed Norton) going all the way back to De Niro if not Brando, then Harrelson has decided to channel Robert Duvall in his Apocalypse Now pomp – tight, spruce, not to be messed with.

And that’s why the film is worth watching, to see two actors more or less playing other actors in a series of tough little scenes of intense emotion, and doing it brilliantly.

The film meanwhile, directed by a debuting Oren Moverman, whose Rampart (Harrelson as a Dirty Harry figure caught out of time) reinforces the idea that there’s a serious bit of 1970s worship going on with its choice of close shots, its human focus, its mood music.

That’s its downside too – that it is a mood piece which starts to wander once it’s established itself. Plot junkies might want to look elsewhere.



Why Watch?


  • The first film by Oren Moverman
  • Foster and Harrelson genuinely work well together
  • Harrelson in Duvall-mode shouts “Charlie don’t surf” at one point
  • Bobby Bukowski’s 1970s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Messenger – at Amazon






Woody Harrelson in Rampart


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 March



Rodney King beating caught on camera, 1991

On this day in 1991, one of the inaugural events of the age of citizen journalism occurred after paroled felon Rodney King was stopped by police after a high speed chase and then beaten by five officers. King was drunk and had been trying to outrun the police, knowing that arrest while driving under the influence would mean a violation of his parole and an immediate return to prison. George Holliday’s videotape of the beating of Rodney King was what made the event important. He’d switched his camera on just as police were tasering King for the second time; but it was the fusillade of baton strikes to King’s body as police deployed their “swarm” tactic – standard procedure against an unco-operative subject – that were eye-catching. Though King later sued the city of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million dollars, plus expenses, the trial of the police for the use of excessive force resulted in them being acquitted. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, resulting in the death of 54 people, the arrest of 7,000, and millions of dollars’ worth of damage.




Rampart (2011, dir: Oren Moverman)

Rampart is the story of an old world cop in a new world he doesn’t understand, a Dirty Harry surrounded by diktats of appropriateness and proportionality. It’s also a very nice role for Woody Harrelson who, after playing an inbred hick shooting zombies in one film too many (or does Zombieland just feel like more than one movie?), reminds us that he’s also an actor. Harrelson plays the anachronism who listens to shock jocks, beats up witnesses, intimidates rookie female members of the force, is quite possibly married to a member of his own family (if I’ve got the fact wrong there, then I’m in the right area in spirit). His force nickname is Daterape, enough said. “I am not a racist,” says Rampart, after being hauled in for going a bit Rodney King on a black motorist he’s taken a dislike to. “The fact is I hate all people equally.” These lines appear in some of the most amusing sections of the film, when he’s being questioned by his concerned superiors, in particular Sigourney Weaver, whom he has also taken a dislike to, partly because he resents having a boss, mostly because she’s a woman. He is, in his defence of himself to her, “the one cop who gets it.” This is a cop up to his neck in dirt, in other words, because that’s the way it goes when you work the streets. The strength of Oren Moverman’s film, script by James Ellroy and Moverman, is that it doesn’t utterly condemn Harrelson’s David Brown. We see Brown swaggering on duty and kind of pathetic off duty. Moverman plants us in Brown’s head with his feverish camera movement and livid colours, lifts ambient sound quite high in the mix. We don’t love Brown, but we do understand him; we’re not rooting for him, but we are rooting for him not to get caught. Ned Beatty arrives, adding further weight to the idea that Rampart at some level is a 1970s love-in – but it’s not the timid Beatty of Deliverance, rather a nastier character, there to nudge us that, no, this is not the way police affairs should be conducted, never should have been in fact. Moverman handles his large cast of real pros with skill, though he could be accused of not having read the Don Siegel book of directing – a touch of Dirty Harry economy wouldn’t go amiss. But there’s absolutely no need to have background knowledge of real incidents at Los Angeles’s Rampart division – 70 cops in the anti-gang unit accused of corruption. This film boils it all down for us into the character of one very rancid man.



Why Watch?


  • Woody Harrelson’s great performance
  • A supporting cast that’s just as good – Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster
  • Bobby Bukowski’s urgent cinematography
  • Beautifully done 1970s pastiche


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rampart – at Amazon





Natural Born Killers

Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers





Oliver Stone’s notorious film about two dim kids who kill a few people and become media celebrities takes two actors who weren’t exactly the go-to choices for crazy nutjob killer roles. Woody Harrelson was fresh from playing affable dunce Woody in Cheers and Juliette Lewis was uppermost in the mind as the daughter in Cape Fear. As it turned out the roles fit them like a second skin. As in similar gangster/road movies such as Badlands or Bonnie & Clyde, writer Quentin Tarantino and director Stone send their two fuck-ups off on a series of murders. But, unusually, they also send them off on a stylistic journey through a storm of different generic TV styles – advertising, sitcom, news etc. This allows both Tarantino and Stone to show how down with popular culture they are. And to deliver the big message : the media might not create murderous misfits but they certainly exploit them – especially if the murderers in question are sexy. This is an Oliver Stone film so the main point about media culpability is overdone. If we’re being kind this is deliberate, Stone is aping news media’s habit of chewing and chewing until whatever it’s bitten off has been reduced to pap. This excess of stylistics also handily does away with the need for a character who “explains it all”. Stone’s focus on almost all branches of the media – except very obviously the movie business – did come back to bite him however. On the film’s release, TV and newspapers went for him like a baying pack and accused the director of making a film liable to pervert weak minds and encourage violence. Thus missing the point entirely – deliberately, of course – so Stone’s wider issue of the “famous-for-15-monstrosities” culture got completely ignored. Yet violence is not the film’s point at all. And even if it were – how many people did Freddie Kruger kill?

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Natural Born Killers – at Amazon