As far as Westerns are concerned, until this week, I thought I’d seen it all. With such films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, High Noon, and Once Upon a Time in the West among others, what more could filmmakers draw from this genre that hasn’t been said already? Enter Slow West. What I would consider more of a dark, comedic tragedy, the movie embarks on an original story that has little to say, but presents itself in such a manner that leaves you forgetting you’re watching a Western.
Slow West begins like any other fairy tale, “once upon a time,” but from the start we soon learn that “happily ever after” may only be an unrealistic dream in the head of our protagonist, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee). We join our young hero under the clear night as he fantasizes about his beloved
Bonnie Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). He’s about to reunite with the love of his life. After a long journey far from his home in Scotland, halfway across the U.S. in 1870 Colorado, Jay soon realizes that he’s entered a land full of Native Americans fleeing for their lives, crack shot bounty hunters, and starving immigrant vagabonds.
Making the most unlikely of travel companions, Jay is coerced into the protective services of Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a gruff lone wolf hardened by the lawless nature of the west who may have ulterior motives. A silent anti-hero, we learn more about Silas’ feelings through voice over narration rather than the few exchanges of words he has with Jay, describing the inexperienced lad as a “jack rabbit in a den of wolves.” As they carry forward on horseback, we find Silas slowly warming up to Jay’s optimistic mentality; in a way becoming more of a father figure as he teaches the boy how to survive in this new world.
With what little dialogue there is to be found in Slow West – spoken almost poetically from the talented cast of actors – first time feature film writer/director John Maclean makes every word count. The film is almost too lean, however, as Maclean leaves much to the imagination for us connect our own dots. There’s more time spent on commenting on the harsh realities of the west rather than exploring whom our main characters are in order to make their actions believable.
Although the film is a brief 84 minutes, it doesn’t mind taking its time to side step from the main narrative into a few anecdotes from minor characters. It meanders with purpose in an unconventional way. Slow West isn’t structured like your average Western and comes across rather refreshing because of it. It’s a daring film that takes chances and will not hold your hand to reach its looming climax. And what a gleefully enjoyable climax it is.
Along their travels, Jay and Silas encounter a ragtag group of cowboys led by a man known as Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), whose fur coat upstages his personality. They’re on a mission to find their next score, who unbeknownst to Jay is his treasured sweet heart Rose and her father John (Rory McCann). They’re on the lam after an unfortunate disagreement caused them to flee Scotland. The imminent threat of a shoot out we as the audience knows is coming but the characters are unable to foresee is ripe with well-built tension and also poignancy.
In addition to its considerably punchy gun-slinging free-for-all, the entire film is shot beautifully as the wilderness of New Zealand takes pride in filling in for the state of Colorado. There is so much color in Slow West compared to the gritty browns and whites of most Westerns moviegoers are accustomed to. From the rich texture of the golden wheat fields to the outrageously, sharp blue sky, the gorgeous scenery is wonderfully complemented by an orchestra of strings composed by Jed Kurzel (The Babadook).
Taking a page or two out of the Coen brother’s playbook, as well as a few comparisons to Wes Anderson’s work, Slow West is a playful answer for those worn out by the Westerns of old. It provides a kick to your system like a swig of moonshine on a hot summer day. Despite being too on the nose with its humor at times, the movie earns its quirky edge thanks to the unexpected indie nature it exudes throughout. Maclean provides Slow West with ample opportunity to find something new with a second viewing, which goes to show that this director has a bright future ahead of him, unlike the Payne’s gang who only know one rule, survive.
With a run time of 84 minutes, the film is now playing in limited release and also available on demand and is rated R for violence and brief language. [Watch the trailer]