A fresh, vibrant Western revival, Slow West uses the tropes of the genre to its advantage, delivering a unique tale about searching for love in all the wrong places. As the first feature for writer/director John Maclean, the film is a self-assured effort that demonstrates strong promise and a highly stylized sense of humor.
Maclean does something interesting with his story, as it’s an account of Jay Cavendish’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trials as narrated by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). This dual framing of the story provides an avenue for Maclean’s commentary on the genre while exploring areas traditionally outside of its reach. Selleck talks over a black screen, fading to a starry night sky, and he explains that the stocky young Scotsman has travelled to America in order to reclaim a lost love. As the wealthy son of Lady Cavendish, Jay’s relationship with a commoner was seen as improper, and an accident forced his love (Caren Pistorius as Rose) and her father (Rory McCann as John) to flee to the American West. As a “jack rabbit in a den of wolves,” Jay is outmatched by the harsh realities of the vast open territory, and the myriad of thieves and killers that inhabit it. Selleck takes it upon himself to act as a guide; a protector and mentor for the long and dangerous journey. As the men drift across the country, they encounter (in proper Western fashion) Indians, bounty hunters, conmen and desperadoes.
As the story of Jay’s life, Slow West is told primarily from an outsider’s point of view. Where standard Westerns are gritty and bleak, Maclean’s film has a distinct vivacity to its portrayal of the West. Fassbender’s Selleck remarks on Jay’s optimism as being “to him we were in a land of hope and goodwill. The way I saw it, kick over any rock, and a desperado would crawl out and knife you in the heart.” Robbie Ryan’s cinematography reflects this belief in the sparkling colors chosen to represent the supposedly bitter land. Beautiful blues constantly fill the sky while lush shades of green dominate the landscape. Jay himself is utterly unaffected by the events that surround him. Both ignorant and positive, he is never afraid to ride through Native encampments or to revel in the music of a band of Congolese musicians.
Further picking apart the Western, Maclean implants instances of meta commentary on artistic depictions of Native Americans. In one of Slow West‘s most singular moments, Jay comes upon a traveler camping on a boundless plain. Asking for news from the East, Werner (Andrew Robertt doing his best Dr. King Schultz impression), makes an observation on the treatment of Natives: “A race extinct, a culture banished, their places renamed. Only then will they be viewed with selective nostalgia, mythologized and romanticized in the safe guise of art and literature.” Unlike any other scene in the film, this surreal rendezvous becomes a defining point for Slow West. Removing all cinematic pretext, Werner seems to monologue directly to the audience, offering several profound pearls of wisdom.
A droll, uncompromising Western, Slow West‘s finest moments are saved for the “final showdown.” Railing against narrative standards and precedents set by masters like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Maclean’s surefooted film has done its part in reviving the genre for modern audiences.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.