2015 Film Essays

His Blazing Automatics: For Your Year-End List Consideration – John Maclean’s ‘Slow West’

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish

It’s December, and the year’s end is upon us. It’s now time to make our Top 10 lists (or 15 or 20 or whatever number you choose), and for the most part, I’m sure you’ve got your favorites all lined up. There are certain films that are going to make plenty of lists – Carol, Mad Max: Fury RoadTangerine – and each of them deserve the praise and exposure. However, before you sit down to make your final tallies, I ask you to see one last film: Slow West.

John Maclean’s debut takes place in 1870, where young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled from Scotland to find his love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Bounty hunter/outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender) agrees to help, and the pair are hunted by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of a gang Silas used to run with. I first caught the film at Sundance this year, and it was one of my favorite works from the festival. As I’ve revisited the western, though, the love has only grown. Slow West is a film that has more to reveal and to ponder upon with each viewing.

There’s not a lacking turn from the cast. Fassbender has fun playing an archetypal heroic drifter, and Smit-McPhee — already innocent looking to begin with — puts his scrawny frame to great character use as Jay. Mendelsohn wears the most majestic of fur coats in a nod by Maclean to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and he’s still the most authentic sleazebag character actor, creating a menacing turn as Payne, simply by how he wears that fur coat.


There’s a dark sense of humor running through Slow West that deepens with each viewing, displayed through the visual buildup and punchline of silent comedy. Consider the introduction to Silas. He pulls his gun on a threatening soldier, and Jay, not knowing Silas and the concept of respecting government authority, pulls on the man. Silas calmly makes his way to Jay and simply snatches the pistol from him. Silas fires Jay’s pistol at the soldier, but the gun is empty. The soldier begins to smile at his luck. Silas, fed up, just shoots the soldier with his own gun. The dialogue caps the moment off. Jay protests, “He was an officer.” Silas replies, “Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady.” Everything about these two is displayed in one encounter, with the dialogue only existing to heighten each character’s nature.

In a visual gag that would make Buster Keaton laugh, a character leans against a wall bleeding and experiences a horrible realization that culminates in possibly the worst moment of his whole life. A stray bullet hits a container of salt above him, causing literal salt to pour into his literal wound. It’s a moment both heartbreaking and cleverly hilarious. Another great visual gag, Silas constantly has a cigar in his mouth, even when he and the cigar are drenched in the flood. During the climactic shootout, he finds a book of matches in a corpse next to him and smiles at his luck.

Even though Slow West clocks in at just under 90 minutes, Maclean’s film still has a tremendous amount of thoughtful patience, letting various scenes stray from the overall plot to heighten the mysticism of this west. Chief among them, Jay and Silas ride past a group of musicians performing for nobody in the middle of nowhere. Jay stops to listen while Silas rides on. After the musicians are done, they ask (in perfect French) if Jay enjoyed their music. He replies in perfect French as well, saying that he enjoyed the song. The group tells Jay that it’s a song about love, and the kid replies that “Love is universal like death,” and he rides off as they play him out.


The line from Jay highlights one of Slow West‘s greatest strengths: poetic dialogue. Characters don’t speak often, but when they do, it’s with a sense of eulogy and poetry, resulting in some of the most authentically unique dialogue of 2015. When Silas asks Jay what Rose is like, he comments, “She does not waste words. They tumble out, wit following wisdom.” Also, during Jay’s encounter with Werner, a German writer that invites the character to camp, he approaches and announces his peaceful intentions. Werner replies, “My ears hear your music.” Later that night, Jay tells Werner of a sin he’s committed. The German looks at the land around them, and in perhaps the most definitive line of the film, remarks, “In a short time, this will be a long time ago.” The score by Jed Kurzel remains one of the finest of the year, accompanying the poetic dialogue. The violin melodies are all at once romantic and sorrowful, playing like an elegy for the old west.

The images in Slow West feel like they were painted onto the screen, with John Maclean establishing himself as a polished director. Each shot of the New Zealand landscape is something to behold. Many of the images feel off-kilter, largely due to the tight 1:66:1 framing employed by Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, creating an almost otherworldly disconnect to this portrayal of the west. The film largely exists in an almost dream-like state as it functions as a poetic eulogy of the west. Simply put, Slow West is unlike anything out there this year and deserves to be recognized as one of the most unique works of 2015, as the film only grows and develops with each viewing.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.