SLOW WEST – A Darkly Comic and Suspenseful Western – DIFF 2015 Movie Review
Slow West, the bravura feature writing and directing debut of John Maclean (notable, at least to me, for being a founding member of The Beta Band), is the tale of a 16 year old Scottish boy travelling across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves, Rose played by Caren Pistorious. The boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Road) is accompanied on his journey by an outlaw played by Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Shame). The film also stars Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly, Netflix’s Bloodline) as a menacing, rival outlaw on the tale of Michael Fassbender’s character. Slow West is a stylish, bloody western that is as darkly funny as it is suspenseful.
We’re introduced to Smit Mc-Phee’s character, Jay, as he is laying on his back looking at the stars-the first of many times we will be treated to images of the night sky. This character has his head in the clouds and, as many people in the film point out, is not likely to survive his time in the unforgiving American frontier for long. He is rescued (sort of) from a tricky situation by Michael Fassbender’s Silas, an outlaw whose motives are not quite clear. Silas offers to escort Jay across the Colorado wilderness in exchange for some cash. Their journey is marked by a series of encounters with other folks who live outside the law.
Each new encounter introduces us to a different facet of this world and what we learn over the course of a very lean 84 minutes is that this is a world that is not for the faint of heart. It’s punishing to the weak and taxing on the strong. Nobody has an easy time of it in this film.
I felt a bit of trepidation going into Slow West. I am not typically a fan of westerns. I generally find them to be slow and distant, not the kind of thing I can connect to as a viewer. What I found in Slow West is a film that really speaks to me, and not because it’s an atypical western. The film has all the elements of a classical western: gruff, grizzled outlaws, Native Americans, gorgeous views of the American West (actually New Zealand, but who’s keeping track?), and of course, kill or be killed moments all culminating in a great shootout.
I’ve been puzzling over this film for days now, trying to figure out why I liked it so much, beyond the fact that it’s super entertaining. It’s not the performances, although they are good, but something about the world that director John Maclean has created. The film has a mythic quality with its imagery of the stars and its talk of The East and The West. I get the sense that there is a great deal of fate at work here, but it’s a fate I couldn’t figure out. This isn’t to say that the film is ambiguous or hard to follow. It’s actually pretty straightforward. I guess I just feel like there’s a fatalism at work here that metes out judgement by a standard I’m not familiar with. It’s like a fable with no moral. It also has a demented streak of gallows humor running through it that was very entertaining, but also a bit sadistic, like something out of a Coen Brothers film. Often, as fate seeks to punish one of the characters in the film, it does so in a way that is not only violent, but funny, inviting us to relish in their bad fortune.
The relationship between Jay and Silas is the film’s only real soft spot. As the two spend more time together they form a bond that is quite touching. This is contrasted by the realistic, grisly depiction of violence in the film. Maclean has a real eye for the staging and editing of these scenes. One scene in particular, that takes place in a store, is incredibly suspenseful. While the initial moments of violence in this scene are horrifying while also slightly amusing, the scene’s coda provided a moral gut punch I wasn’t quite ready for. It is this juxtaposition of the violent, funny, and tragic that continues to build throughout the film and is especially enhanced by the way Silas and Jay bond. Their friendship continues to grow as they move across Colorado, but it’s followed by this intense violence, at times personified by Ben Mendelsohn’s Payne, a rival outlaw who has a history with Silas. Payne and his gang are following Silas and Jay, using them to track down Rose who has a price on her head.
This all leads up to an electric shootout at a house in the prairie lands. As I said before, there’s something at work here that I’m not quite getting, but I love that. This is a film that is insanely watchable and entertaining, but that I think will benefit from repeat viewings. I can’t wait to see the film again to pick apart its themes and, hopefully, absorb a little more of what it’s trying to say about life and death. Luckily, I won’t have to wait long as Slow West opens on May 15th. I guarantee I’ll be at the cinema opening weekend.