Take a Drink: for the body-count
Take a Drink: for questionably American accents
Do a Shot: each time a character drinks
Western Cliché Bingo: before watching the film, write out a list of 5 (minimum) Western movie tropes you’re expecting to see. Do a Shot: when you are right. Do Two Shots: if your prediction is subverted with the opposite. Take a pull straight from the liquor bottle: if your prediction didn’t come true at all (play responsibly).
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
When an unfortunate accident sends his would-be girlfriend and her father on the run, Scottish teen Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) follows after, tracking them to Colorado. On his own and horribly out of his element, Jay begrudgingly accepts the offer of help from Silas (Michael Fassbender), a drifter who promises to guide him safely through the wilderness, for a price. Silas has ulterior motives; however, he soon warms to Jay, and the two forge a comradeship.
In many ways, the Western is a fairytale movie genre; boasting larger than life characters and adventurous, sometimes fantastical tales. These are set within a universe which never really existed in the way we remember. The best Westerns reflect and comment upon the moral and ethical standards of the time in which the film was made. Films like The Ox-Bow Incident, High Noon, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven, and Dead Man are captivating experiences not because of their adherence to cliché, but instead for their use of these familiar elements to say something new and relevant. Slow West may not quite reach the highest highs of the films mentioned above, but it is a masterpiece of visual filmmaking courtesy of first-time feature director John Maclean.
Alongside cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena), Maclean takes full advantage of the outdoors, with stunningly captured valleys, scenic forests, and sparkling vistas. It is worth noting that the film, while taking place in Colorado, was entirely shot in New Zealand (Fans of the Lord of the Rings films may recognize several locations). Like John Ford’s use of Monument Valley, and Sergio Leone’s Almería, Spain, the logic of shooting in these places isn’t to be historically accurate, but instead to create an aesthetic which resonates with audiences.
Slow West flows and changes with dreamlike qualities. Characters pass the same locations several times, coincidences pile-up with fated certainty. Director Maclean takes advantage of this to put the audience in a constant state of unease. Moments of humor and banality are often rewarded with extreme and shocking violence and bitter irony. I often found myself laughing in uncomfortable moments, only to be quickly made to feel guilty when faced with the often unintended consequences the characters are put through. There is no set pattern to the narrative, keeping the viewer always alert, as layers of story are peeled away, revealing more and more.
The colorfully filmed action sequences are lighting-paced and make creative use of surroundings, one example being a shoot-out in a field of grain where gunmen pop-up from their positions like some kind of deadly game of whack-a-mole. When the action happens, it often ends as quickly as it begins, in keeping with 1970s revisionist Western sensibilities.
On the surface, the characters played by Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee couldn’t be more different. Fassbender’s Silas embodies the epitome of Western-movie manhood, contrasted with Smit-McPhee’s ignorance. As the film proceeds, it becomes apparent that the pair share commonalities which they will never admit to, but are impossible for the viewer to ignore. The supporting cast includes a dependably sinister Ben Mendelsohn as a Bounty Hunter who used to ride with Fassbender, and now sees him as a rival. Rory McCann has a small role as the father of Jay’s girlfriend, a part which is decidedly different than his more famous role as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The film’s chief flaw is in the abbreviated denouement, which doesn’t quite feel as impactful as the filmmakers intended. It’s hard not to wonder whether there could have been more elaboration to the story, something to set the stage for the finale, and make it hit harder than it does. The film spends relatively little time developing the characters that Jay is trying so hard to find, his girlfriend and her father, only very occasionally detouring to their point of view. A few more scenes with them could have raised the stakes, giving the audience more to anticipate. This barely hampers the story, though, but at a breezy 83 minutes, it isn’t difficult to wish the film had more ground to explore.
A fresh take on the much-explored Western genre is rare to come by, but Director John Maclean has brewed up something truly strange, and never anything less than fascinating.