Slow West (2015)
Written & Directed by John Maclean
Young Jay Cavendish has traveled from Scotland to America in pursuit of his one true love Rose Ross. Rose and her father fled their home after a crime was committed. Jay crosses paths with Silas Selleck, a bounty hunter who appears to take a fondness to the naive and earnest younger man. They begin a trek across the West to find Rose and encounter other travelers along the way. Following them are a band of fellow bounty hunters who want to catch Jay for their purposes. The journey is a quiet one with short bursts of violence, like a strange dream.
I’m not sure if we are in the midst of a Western revival or it’s just a genre that has never left us, but Slow West is a fascinating addition to the canon. It’s a short trip, 84 minutes in total, but contains a lot of fleshed out characters and a very quiet, simple, affecting story. Gun violence is expected, and there is no shortage of it, but the way it is framed is what makes it interesting. There is an emotional weight to each life taken to the point we have a montage near the end of the film that shows each person who died in reverse back to the opening scene of the movie. Taking a life has meaning in Slow West.
Michael Fassbender plays Silas, the bounty hunter and uses restraint to not overpower the performance of the lead Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay. These two characters represent the dueling ideas at the core of Slow West. Jay is a textbook idealist, believing himself able to be the hero who swoops in and rescues his devoted. Silas challenges these ideas using the brutal landscape of the American West as his canvas. He admires Jay’s naivete but reminds him that everyone they encounter is likely to slit their throats while they sleep. The theme of the film ends up being the question of which of these perspectives will win out in the end. The film makes it very clear that neither view is entirely correct and that they exist together as a messy contradiction.
Slow West possesses an incredibly unique tone existing somewhere in the middle of a Venn Diagram that is made of Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. Even in this short amount of time, we diverge into the past for flashbacks that explain the reason Jay came to be in America. We get a story told by an outlaw about making assumptions. There’s a German anthropologist who is exploring the American West to preserve something of the dying Native cultures. Slow West doesn’t ignore the tropes of Western films and includes them all in addition to surprising us at every turn.
Another striking aspect of the movie is its landscape. The picture was filmed in New Zealand so don’t expect the classic Monument Valley shot. The story is set in and around Colorado, so we see lots of snowy mountains and thick forests. This doesn’t look much like the Western surroundings we’re used to, and that is a good thing. If you are a connoisseur of Westerns, I would highly recommend Slow West. It delivers a story with all the emotional and moral conviction you would expect from the genre.