Film Review: “Slow West” : The Western Epic Redux — and Reduced

Slow West bursts with visual interest, but doesn’t seem to be able to settle on what story it wants to tell.

Slow West --

A rare bit of down time for Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film “Slow West.”

By Matt Hanson

Slow West, recently screened at the Boston Independent Film Festival and soon to be nationally released, revisits the western for the 21st Century. The debut film from John Maclean, former member of the great Scottish alt-rock group The Beta Band, the yarn turns out to be  a faithful but flawed tribute to the gritty western epics of yore. The movie’s premise is promising and there’s plenty of visual flair, but anything deeper than that is lost in the clouds of blood and the dust.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is Jay Cavendish, a moody Scottish lad who willfully comes to America to reclaim his sweetheart Rose Ross, who has absconded to the lawless wilds of the post-Civil War United States and joined a wanted band of outlaws in the process. Jay isn’t much more than a boy as he embarks on his quest through an unsettled, chaotic world of deserts, horses, bandits, and rueful solitude. Worse, he comes badly prepared, with little equipment or protection other than a stubborn determination to find his true love and bring her back home.

Enter Michael Fassbender’s Silas Sellek, an enigmatic bounty hunter whose steely-eyed stoicism and readiness to shoot first and ask no questions makes him the ideal guide for an impetuous youth in the midst of the wilderness. Silas tersely agrees to guide the boy on his journey west, claiming it’s solely for the money the boy has to offer but also, we sense, because of some grizzled sympathy for the kid’s naive chutzpah and a relief from his own utter isolation from humanity.

Fassbender’s wizened old cowboy is straight from central casting: he is weighed down by the weary toll of experience, manifested by a code of ‘ethics’ that calls for plenty of shoot first murders in the name of survival by any means necessary. One character alludes to Darwin directly, an intriguing and insightful theme (the survival of the mangiest?) that unfortunately goes unexplored.

In contrast to the film’s title, the story is briskly paced and constantly bustles with energy. Along the way, we see a variety of classically ‘western’ genre situations and archetypes: there are several Mexican standoffs, long ruminating shots of the merciless terrain, a sinister booze-peddler, and a crew of snaggletoothed old cusses telling tales by the fire.

The film manages, almost, to be a coming-of-age story amid the beautifully bleak terrain. In one hallucinatory sequence, the kid is taken in by an eccentric German professor who is trying to map the windswept territory for posterity; he is given an impromptu lecture on how quickly the world they inhabit will soon be lost and gone forever. In the morning, the searcher not only gets a lesson in impermanence as unsentimental as it is unexpected, but also inadvertently learns the hard way why you should never talk to strangers.

Eventually, Jay and Silas discover his beloved’s whereabouts, but not without also realizing how much danger she is going to put them in considering how much money is at stake for whoever catches her. There are more than a few hired guns hungry for the payday. The impetuous Jay Cavendish learns to his profound shock that there’s more to having what you want than simply finding it. There is a price.

Fassbender is intense and believable as the nihilistic Silas: he keeps the film compelling by supplying the brooding, edgy gravitas of a trigger-happy Gary Cooper. The figure of the stoic loner steals the film because the actor makes the figure’s baleful gaze much more cinematically interesting than the romantic anguish of the ostensible main character, whose sentimental education is given less screen time and narrative importance than the relentless mayhem of the plot.

And that is the problem. The film bursts with visual interest but doesn’t seem to be able to settle on what kind of story it wants to tell. The personal relationships aren’t developed enough to overshadow the ruined grandeur of the wilderness the figures inhabit. The film would have benefited greatly if it had found ways to dig deeper into the inner lives of its characters, especially given that they are continually in peril. Maclean has made an entertaining but callow version of what writer Frank Gruber, in his list of seven plots for westerns, called an “outlaw story.”

This is not to say that Slow West doesn’t show respect for the conventions of its genre. It is the other way around — it makes the overly deferential mistake of not trying to enhance or re-imagine what has gone before. (Perhaps the filmmakers think that today’s audiences are not familiar with the old tropes.) John Ford and Sam Peckinpah knew that explosive, even gory shootouts could make for indelible images as well as great drama, but neither of them ever forgot that the emotional and intellectual risks for the characters have to be at least as immediate and visceral as the bullets, gunshots, and spurts of blood. Otherwise, it simply becomes a matter of body count, the screen slowly filling to the brim with corpses.

Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

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