Slow West Review
Westerns as a genre have come a long way. Once they were pretty much dime a dozen due to their popularity and how quick and easy they were to make. Since then the genre has been deconstructed, reconstructed, played straight, played for comedy, set in space, set in other countries, and anything and everything that could be done to the genre has been done. Yet writers and directors keep returning to this time and setting for its potential to tell stories. The latest director to mosey on into this landscape is John Maclean, first time feature director but having gained much acclaim for his short films, with his story of love and survival.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young nobleman living in Scotland in the 1870s. He is in love with a girl named Rose (Caren Pistorius), but an accident forces Rose and her father to flee the country and settle in the heart of western America. Jay goes to follow the love of his life, but it soon becomes clear that the gentle romantic soul is utterly unprepared for the harsh realities of the land. After a chance run-in, Jay meets a gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) and hires him to be his guard and guide while on his journey. Silas is a gruff and dangerous individual with motives of his own, but there is an even more dangerous gang, led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), on the trail of the two travellers.
A key factor for a good Western to me is the dirt. There has to be dust, mud, blood, sweat and tears to make the environment just that extra bit of immersive that fits with the real history of that time. Slow West definitely has a good measure of this, you get a sense of the danger and how hard won simply living in this place is. The shots of the New Zealand landscape filling in for Colorado are striking and beautiful, with just a touch of otherness and wildness.
The character of Jay is a romantic and an optimist now in a place where someone wouldn’t think twice about shooting him dead for no reason. Smit-McPhee’s performance relies on innocence and a measure of naiveté, you really can’t help but feel for him sometimes, but he manages to never lay it on too thick. Fassbender’s Silas is a clear contrast to this, so focussed on survival that he doesn’t see anything else in the world. It’s more of a supporting role than many would be used to from him, but it’s no less strong a character and he plays it excellently. The thing initially holding the two together is purely monetary but, as is always the way of these things, that changes the closer the two get to their goal.
I would say that the film plays itself about 87% straight, with that last 13% being a wry smile and just the touch of a twinkle in the eye. There is a vein of black comedy running through the film that serves to punctuate some harsh moments with how off-guard the laughs catch you, and some are little moments of absurdity that are strangely in keeping with the world as we are experiencing it. Add in to this the merest hints of magical realism and you have a very unique blend of an atmosphere done very confidently, hinting that Maclean has some interesting things in store for audiences in his coming career.
One of the first things you notice about Slow West is that the title is something of a misnomer. At 84 minutes the film is very breezy, and wastes no time in pulling you along on this journey. This actually highlights one of the film’s strengths, but also its biggest weakness. It doesn’t bog you down and gives the film a decent pace, but it also means that the character bonds don’t feel as concrete as they could be. A few more scenes showing rather than telling us that Silas is softening in his view of Jay would have been welcome. However, this still works when you consider the film in the framework of a story being told. Silas’ narration begins very fairytale-like and the way that people and events cross in and out of Jay and Silas’ journey feels like an overlapping series of stories, like each person has their own story that we’re seeing a glimpse of before moving on to the next. This element is also aided in the moments when we see Jay’s flashbacks to his time with Rose in Scotland. Maclean shoots these sections fairly realistically, not coloured by Jay’s view of that time, and as such hint that there is more going on and that it might not be the great love story it’s set up to be.
The rest of the supporting cast is excellent, particularly Ben Mendelsohn who brings a constant aura of threat whenever he steps on screen. In the moments with him and Fassbender it’s almost like watching two wolves face each other down.
The final gunfight at the climax is a wonderfully executed sequence. It’s shot with gorgeous composition with this perfect square of wheat providing cover for the gang of bounty hunters and this initially pristine newly built house in the middle of fields with a stark white interior. Yet despite this visual flair, the actual fight is very to the point being simple, punchy and not played for melodrama. I also found the film’s ultimate ending to be quite satisfying and fitting with everything that had gone before.
Slow West weaves a tale that is incredibly simple when broken down; living, dying love, violence, but what really makes it special is the sheer amount of soul that John Maclean infuses into every scene. I found the film to be enjoyable, visually elegant and contextually interesting with its setting and characters. In a summer of the usual bombast and special effects laden action, this film is a target you want to set your sights on.