The debut feature from writer-director John Maclean, Slow West, is both a rollicking adventure and a tragic fable, told with a distinctive stylistic voice. The film stars Michael Fassbender and the impressive young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee as two wanderers whose paths cross—and soon become deeply entangled—in the late-19th-century Wild West.
Director: John Maclean
Producers: Iain Canning, Rachel Gardner, Conor McCaughan, Emile Sherman
Writer: John Maclean
Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan
Editors: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory
Music: Jed Kurzel
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Medelsohn
Countries: UK/New Zealand
US Theatrical Release: May 15, 2015
US Distributor: A24
Their story begins as Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), a Scottish 16-year-old from an aristocratic background who has found himself traveling alone through the Colorado wilderness, is rescued from a gun-toting stranger by, well, another gun-toting stranger: Fassbender’s grizzled vagabond Silas. Silas, also the film’s narrator, then dutifully takes Jay under his wing. As they journey together, Silas learns that Jay has come to the States in pursuit of his lost love Rose, who left the Highlands to settle down in America with her father. Unfortunately for Jay, Rose and her father have a $2,000 bounty on their heads, their visages splashed across “WANTED” posters throughout the West. Once Silas realizes that his newfound companion and protégé will lead him right to this prize, the film’s carefully laid plot develops an uneasy, ethically complex undertow.
Slow West evinces many the superficial aesthetic trappings of a traditional Western, but feels equally of a piece with contemporary indie cinema. It’s a film that’s comfortable with scenes of emptiness and silence, perfect for a story set in the vast expanses of the Old West. In this sense, it shares a kinship with Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, another slow-burning neo-Western (albeit a darker and more meditative one, less driven by conventional plotting). The film also feels a bit mannered and baroque, with the rhythm of certain scenes recalling the films of Wes Anderson.
But lurking beneath this aura of preciousness is a taut, kinetic story told with both brio and economy. The film effortlessly fits a number of twists and turns into its 80-minute runtime, morphing from an odd, arty road movie into an excitement-packed yarn hurtling towards a grim, bloody climax. Some of the script’s complications feel jagged, out of place, or disruptive to the film’s stylistic whole, which makes for enjoyably unpredictable viewing but left me wishing that Maclean had given these diversions a little more breathing room.
As an emotional whole, however, Slow West is smart and impactful, bolstered by Smit-McPhee and Fassbender’s easy rapport. Gradually, the story’s undergirding assumptions—foremost, about Silas’ friendship with Jay and Jay’s relationship to Rose—are reexamined and reconfigured, with Fassbender in particular turning in a gripping and soulful performance. As in many Westerns, the landscape, with all its dangers and wonders, becomes a key narrative force, and Robbie Ryan’s ravishing yet intimate cinematography brings it to life without shortchanging the film’s compelling cast of characters.
Hollywood director Walter Hill once opined that all of his films—a catalog which includes traditional cowboy fare alongside unexpected titles such as the cult classic gangland romp The Warriors or the buddy cop action/comedy 48 Hrs.—had been Westerns, because the key to the genre was the creation of “a stripped-down moral universe that is…beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem.” I don’t know that I agree with this definition, although I like it. But it gets to the core of one thing that seems underdeveloped in Slow West, which is a sense of place and of history. The film gestures at the grander meaning of America’s westward expansion, the headwinds behind it and the chaos that came with it. But even amid shoot-’em-up sequences and Indian attacks, Slow West’s moral concerns manifest themselves in a smaller, more intimate story; call it a Western in miniature.