“There’s more to life than just surviving.“
Dir: John Maclean
Lionsgate UK, New Zealand/UK, 2015
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann
For his debut, writer-director John Maclean – formerly of Scottish electro-rock outfit The Beta Band – has turned in an extremely well-crafted absurdist and lyrical neo-western in the same vein as Jarmusch’s Dead Man, albeit one not quite as abstruse. The unemphatic title appears to be a rather cryptic misnomer that remains enigmatic even after the film is over; Slow West is a strange film and also one of the year’s most enjoyable, but it isn’t particularly slower or faster than any other Westerns.
Set in nineteenth century Colorado (although shot in twenty-first century New Zealand), Slow West follows a callow high born Scots boy, Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), who has ventured to the U.S. in search of Rose (Pistorius), a girl he loves deeply; Rose has fled from Scotland with her father (McCann) after he accidentally committed a murder. Being an innocent foreigner in a dangerous land, it is fortunate that Jay comes across a veteran gunslinger, Silas (Fassbender), who offers to chaperon him to his destination in return for whatever money the boy has. But as we soon find out, it is actually an unrequited love for the girl that is tragically motivating Jay’s globetrotting persistence, just as it is also revealed that Silas has been tracking Jay down for his own duplicitous intentions.
Slow West offers most of the usual inhabitants and customs of westerns: cowboys, outlaws, savagely brutalised Native Indians, travelling vagabonds, hold-ups, campfire raconteuring and the obligatory shoot-out. But, as with most modern westerns – the Australian variant The Proposition (2005), True Grit (2010), the aforementioned Dead Man and so on – the genre and its tropes are here given a different slant in style and substance which opposes that of the classics.
A strong line of gallows humour accompanies most scenes in the film with the comedy ranging from slapstick to abstract visual puns. My favourite example of the latter being the ‘salt in the wound’ idiom being made literal during a painfully apt moment. The film also employs dreams to concisely provide backstory and, to a rather more Lynchian effect, serve as a premonition. A range of different nationalities that have journeyed to the West are also somewhat focused on. During Jay and Silas’s journey, they encounter some Swedish robbers, a deceitful German writer and some peaceful African musicians (with whom Jay shares a seemingly arcane but ultimately significant exchange concerning the universality of love and death). Yet, like much of today’s world remains, the American Frontier was not exactly a beacon of cosmopolitanism; the film’s final moment reminds us of this with a spectacular and bloody climactic shootout and a sobering montage that backtracks over the trail of bloodshed that has led the character’s to their respective destinations.
It’s a nice change to see a film as succinct as Slow West; it barely lasts eighty minutes yet doesn’t refrain from allowing Jay and Silas the time to gradually develop their subtly expressed father-son bond. Additionally, the film isn’t afraid to make some narrative non-sequiturs to acquaint us with the West’s many colourful characters. One occasion sees an absinthe-addled Jay accidentally wander to the wrong camp and he stays around long enough to listen to a rambler tell an ironic story of an arrogant fool that was determined to raise the bounty on his own wanted poster. It is such moments that grant the diegesis and character’s journey a substance that regular set-pieces would not. The film is in no rush to have the leads arrive at their final destinations and Maclean has placed enough intricate twists and turns along the way so that the outcome is never fully in sight until we and the characters arrive ourselves.
The performances are first-rate with Fassbender and Smit-McPhee playing off each other wonderfully. The consistently reliable Ben Mendelsohn is also brilliantly understated as a churlish, trapper coat-wearing gang leader. The Australian has quietly proven himself to be one of this generation’s most dexterous character actors with similarly memorable performances in Animal Kingdom (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the underseen Black Sea (2014) and many more. Robbie Ryan must also be mentioned for his exquisitely serene cinematography; Slow West is the best looking film I’ve seen all year.
Slow West is the first of a few new westerns that will be released in the upcoming months – others being The Hateful Eight (2015), The Revenant (2015), and In a Valley of Violence (2016). The film’s existential themes might not be the most straightforward to penetrate, but it has set the bar for the upcoming westerns very high regardless. A funny, tragic, charming, bittersweet and terrific debut.
- Liam Hathaway