It’s absurd to romanticize the Old West—a time when life was somehow cheaper than it was now; there was somehow the notion of an “outlaw” even though the law was largely absent—and yet that romanticism is part of the genre. How could it not be with gorgeous vistas and history-turned-mythology? Writer-director John Maclean relishes the genre’s absurdity with his new film Slow West. Although the loose narrative drags at times, the story is filled with moments that embrace how the randomness of the setting can result in dark comedy and outright darkness.
Set in Colorado Territory in 1870, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled from Scotland to America to reunite with his beloved Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). He’s hopelessly outmatched against the human predators on his journey, and during a standoff with an “Injun hunter,” he’s rescued by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who offers to escort Jay across the dangerous terrain in exchange for thirty dollars. Silas’ taciturn, cold demeanor belies a sharp intellect, and while he may claim to be Jay’s protector, he could be just as dangerous as any other man on the trail.
Jay and Silas provide a strong juxtaposition for the perception of the western. Jay dreams of a loving reunion with Rose, and his hope is so fanciful that he believes he can light up stars just by pointing at them. He’s a naïve romantic and the star of a noble journey leading to love and redemption. Silas, on the other hand, is a pragmatist who acknowledges he’s the last of a collection of deadly outlaws, and only the strongest have survived. The cold, callous, cynical, and deadly nature of the West runs through his veins.
And yet neither man’s viewpoint the world is necessarily “true”. Life in the West was undoubtedly nasty, brutal, and short, but there’s still beauty in the setting. Silas may understand how to live in the West, but as Maclean shows us time and again that survival is all dumb chance. Silas may have upped his odds of survival, but as we see at various points in the characters’ odyssey, death isn’t far behind. Perhaps having a loving view of the setting isn’t so ridiculous when the opposite viewpoint doesn’t improve the quality or longevity of life.
However, Maclean doesn’t always give into these moments of beauty. Slow West is a gorgeous looking film, but periodically we’ll be treated to unusual shots that highlight the larger absurdity of the setting and situation. When Jay is wandering in the desert, he comes across some mushrooms, but Maclean shoots it with forced perspectives so that the mushrooms appear huge. The way Maclean utilizes the foreground and background combined with the slightly jaunty score highlights how he’s not exactly mocking the genre, but he’s not going to honor its rules either.
Maclean’s approach manages to provide a cohesive vision (especially the ending, where everything comes together beautifully), but the structure makes the film feel lethargic at times, which is partially due to the wandering nature of Jay and Silas’ journey. Every scene is important, but they tend to lack urgency (the “slow” in the title is not misleading) unless Maclean is throwing in some dark comedy, which is always welcome and fits perfectly with the subtext.
Although it could use a bit more polish, Slow West is still a smart, meta-western, that’s never flashy or self-celebratory. It lovingly knocks the genre’s conventions and then expands to comment on the randomness of life in general even though the Western is meant to provide a sense of comfort. This isn’t another Unforgiven or an indie dramedy version of A Million Ways to Die in the West. The Old West was wonderful and terrible, and Slow West appreciates both.
Click here for all of our Sundance 2015 coverage. Click on the links below for our other reviews:
- The Bronze
- The End of the Tour
- In Football We Trust
- The Mask You Live In
- Most Likely to Succeed
- Stockholm, Pennsylvania
- White God
- Z for Zachariah