SLOW WEST is a bit of a stunner. It’s been an interesting few years for the Western, with few traditional examples but plenty of sideways looks and genre hybrids making noise and proving there’s still life in this (very) old horse.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) finds himself journeying from his native Scotland to the American frontier in search of his young love Rose (Karen Pistorius) whose family has fled across the Atlantic after an accident puts a mark on their heads. To help him across a strange land full of dangers, Jay employs the sardonic Silas (Michael Fassbender) to escort him to his intended in one piece.
This is a story that shows the mercilessness of frontier life, but also acknowledges the humour in some of these bleak situations. Jay and Silas have a tough journey into the unknown ahead and are always a mere moment away from certain death, but they still take a night to get sloshed on absinthe and awake staggering up and falling over themselves in the middle of a flash flood. They’re duped, shot at, robbed of their clothes in the wilderness and there’s a great throwaway tree-felling gag as well. It’s nice to see Fassbender getting to show off his comic chops (particularly following the bleakness of MACBETH) by bringing Silas’ pragmatic world view into conflict with that of his idealistic young charge, usually in the form of a withering comment or despairing look.
My favourite scene by far takes place early on and has the pair stopping at an unremarkable-looking shack for supplies. The inside of said construction has everything the weary traveler could possibly need to buy from guns and clothes with bloody bullet holes in them to hooch and green bacon. It’s a sequence that starts as a bit of light relief and gets dark real quick when some other travelers arrive.
It’s a beautiful film throughout. New Zealand makes both for a convincing idealistic rural Scotland and an imposing Colorado. The scenery is big and bold, the character moments detailed and intimate. One stylistic trick employed by first-time feature director John Maclean (one to watch) I loved was drawing your focus by placing key objects off-centre in the foreground as the action takes place in the background, like when Jay ditches his unwieldy boots and sprints to the back of shot to rescue his friends. The film also contains one of the most on-the-nose but thematically perfect visual representation of a metaphor in film.
This is the second recent Western after THE SALVATION to deal primarily with the experiences of European expats. For once Michael Fassbender’s accent-on-tour doesn’t matter – everyone’s from everywhere! This certainly helps mark it out from the crowd and provides a different, and arguably much more desperation-fueled motivation for these wanders wandering where they’re wandering.
Despite mixing things up and self-consciously twisting away from convention, Slow West still ends with a classic Western shootout with our heroes hold up in a cabin and a gang of bad guys coming at them from all directions. You expect some sort of last stand in a classic of this genre, but I’m sure there are other ways to cap off a Western than a quick-draw duel or wave after wave of baddies queuing up to get shot. I would have also liked a few more flashbacks to Scotland, more of a development of Jay and Rose to give the film’s final act even more emotional impact than it already has.
America’s favourite genre is becoming decidedly less American. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. The myth is starting to slip and lose its romance but the story and what it means to people is becoming no less interesting. If we have more Western reinventions like Slow West on the horizon, this genre could hang around in one form or another for a long old while yet. SSP