Writer-director John Maclean’s Slow West is like a mash up of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson, filtered through a wry European sensibility. It’s not a traditional Western by any stretch, but instead plays with the conventions and tropes of the genre – rearranging them to create a stark, brief film full of expansive vistas and gallows humour. Populated by international actors playing a variety of non-American characters, set in Colorado but shot in New Zealand, and brought to life by a Scotsman, Slow West views the America of 1870 with a mix of wonder and disdain. It also manages some comedy of the blackest sort, while remaining meticulously constructed and self-aware.
The baby-faced Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as 16-year-old Jay, a Scottish aristocrat who’s travelled across the Atlantic in search of his long lost love Rose (Caren Pistorious). It’s clear Jay’s vastly under-prepared for the hardships of the Wild West, but luckily he’s quickly bailed out of hot water by the mysterious and violent vagabond Silas (Michael Fassbender). Silas agrees to ferry Jay to the arms of his beloved in exchange for cold hard cash, and so they drift off West together on a series of strange misadventures.
It’s a slight setup, as first time director Maclean uses mood, minimal dialogue, and action to fill in the blanks that other movies would likely make explicit. Jay’s true relationship with Rose turns out to be more one-sided than he initially presents, further solidifying his naïveté. Silas is far from simply a lovable rogue, as his past is slowly peeled away in layers and his true motivations revealed. Both Smit-McPhee and Fassbender are well cast, and their previous roles (like The Road and Inglourious Basterds) do some of the heavy lifting in setting them up as youthful and resourceful respectively.
They’re a watchable pair, as their father-son relationship is neither forced nor typical, and Silas’ proclamations (like “Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady”) add colour. There’s other memorable characters as well, most of whom have to make an impression during short appearances. Most notable is Ben Mendelsohn as Payne, a fur-coat clad outlaw (with a loyal posse) on the trail of Jay and Silas. Mendelsohn continues to make a career out of playing these type of slimy scumbags, but when he’s this effective at it there’s no reason to complain. Payne also has a shared past with Silas, which spurs along Silas’ possible redemption. As the film ambles towards a bloody conclusion, Maclean manages to subvert most expectations, providing a fresh and unpredictable air to the proceedings.
Before that point there’s some striking images and affecting scenes, although the film’s short runtime sometimes feels like an impediment to letting the story stretch its legs. The cinematography is measured and patient, making great use of its large frame (and a 1.66:1 aspect ratio) and natural light, while keeping a distance from its subjects. Quiet night scenes are lit by camp fire or starlight, while the hot yellow sun or whipping winds of the plains show nature’s brutal beauty throughout the long days. Tight editing lends tension to a Mexican standoff in a remote supply cabin (with a devastating coda), and odd sojourns with a duplicitous German writer and the aforementioned posse of outlaws lend an otherworldliness to this alien landscape of the past.
That eventual finale sees multiple parties converging on an exposed homestead, as Jay and Silas try to thwart dastardly foes from reaching Rose and her father before they do. It’s here that Slow West best fulfils its promise by creating a white-knuckle sequence full of whizzing bullets and falling bodies that would make Tarantino proud. It’s nice to see that even in an atypical and knowingly offbeat European Western the climactic shootout still has a place. It also leads to a brilliant sight gag involving a glass jar of a kitchen seasoning that is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Slow West seems to be about finding humanity amidst the brutality of the West, although it also presents an outsider’s view that indicts that period of history. It tackles familiar themes like redemption, unrequited love, and masculinity on the high plains, but does so by subverting much of what’s expected. Strong performances and repeated allusions help to decipher the movie’s meaning, but it’s still something of an enigma by the time the credits roll. Maclean presents his American West as a murderous snake pit of greed poisoned by Imperialism and stained with the genocide of its Natives, but still keeps his focus narrowly on his two leads and their journey. Accomplished but slight, Slow West finishes leaving the audience wanting more.
Slow West (2015)
Director: John Maclean
Runtime: 84 minutes