The western genre has essentially been dead since the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t gotten a few great westerns in the years since. Most have been revisionist in nature, repurposing our vision of the West and culture’s celebration of cowboys as heroic figures. Most notable is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which challenges the notion of righteous violence and radically alters the way we view his own cinematic legacy. However, amidst the revisionist westerns there have been a few traditional westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (itself a remake of a classic western) that play the genre mostly straight, devoid of revisionism or subversion. John Maclean’s Slow West is more the latter type of western than the former. It plants its feet firmly within the confines of the genre, and while it may question some of the genre’s conventions, it never subverts them. It’s a quiet examination of the violence naiveté can leave in its wake—and it’s bizarrely funny.
Slow West plays like a fable. It even begins with narration like something out of a storybook. Jay Cavendish, a 16-year-old Scottish aristocrat arrives in the West with nothing but an old revolver and his pack-horse laden with crates of books and useless amenities. He’s in a strange land and almost gets himself killed during a run-in with roving Civil War veterans. He survives due to the intervention of a mysterious gunslinger, Silas (Michael Fassbender). Jay explains that he’s looking for his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who moved West with her father (Rory McCann). Silas agrees to escort Jay to Rose for $50. But there’s a catch. Unawares to Jay, Silas is seeking the bounty on Rose and her father’s heads. That means that every person they come across on their cross country check is a potential hunter seeking that bounty just like Silas.
Violence lingers everywhere in Slow West. There are only a few moments of outright violence in the film, chief among them the exhilarating shootout at the climax, but behind every human interaction there’s the threat of violence. It’s how Maclean envisions the West. Jay and Silas cannot trust anyone, except perhaps each other. Every conversation, no matter how gentle, has death as a potential outcome. One seemingly innocuous conversation between Jay and a German explorer he finds in the middle of a field is excruciatingly tense for the possibility of violence lurking beneath the pleasantries. The German is acting perfectly decent, offering coffee and a blanket, speaking in a calm Bavarian lilt, but no one acts decent in the West without ulterior motives. Only Jay is naive enough to believe him. Slow West demonstrates that if you introduce naivety into an environment full of subterfuge and tension, violence is bound to erupt.
When the violence does erupt, as in the final shootout, Maclean shows his deft hand at composition and intercutting. The climax takes place at a farmhouse in the middle of a golden field of wheat. The sky above is crystal clear, blue as the ocean. It’s a beautiful image, iconic even. The fighters arrange themselves in the field and in the house, popping up out of the wheat to take a shot before disappearing back into the sea of gold. Maclean never loses momentum. His cuts are clean, moving back and forth between each fighter, each shot, each impact. Camera moves are minimal. When a bullet lands, Maclean doesn’t linger to break the rhythm of the shootout. When a character gets shot, it’s shocking how the scene continues on impersonally, as we imagine would be the case in a real gunfight. A fight doesn’t stop for the fallen. Only when the smoke clears does Maclean linger on the dead, highlighting the loss of life in an astonishing, original way.
And yet this violence doesn’t consume the picture. Slow West has its room for humour—a black humour at that, but one that diffuses some of its melancholy even as it plays into the awfulness of the characters’ situations. One scene finds Jay and Silas come across the skeleton of a man crushed by a tree in the woods, the hands outstretched on either side of the trunk, one hand grasping an axe. It’s probably the single funniest image of the year, absurd like something out of Looney Tunes, but also somewhat tragic. It’s a cruel irony that befell this man. Perhaps something similar awaits Jay for his folly.
The only thing that fails to come together in Slow West is the central relationship between Jay and Silas. As envisioned, the relationship is meant to be the classic example of an uneasy partnership blossoming into a spiritual bond. However, we never witness the growth in the relationship. The progression is demanded by the narrative, but not justified. It holds the film back from achieving its intended emotional impact. Slow West is a short film, running only 84 minutes, so perhaps extra time was needed to flesh out this relationship. None of this is to decry Smit-McPhee and Fassbender’s performances. Fassbender handily displays his cool charisma, his violent charm, while Smit-McPhee demonstrates a tenderness uncharacteristic of young male actors. He provides the film with its thematic depth.
As flashbacks reveal, Jay’s love for Rose is one-sided. He’s blinded by something he believes is love, and allows that blindness to lead him into bad situations. He’s naive and that naivety causes people to die. You can equate Jay’s thoughts about love with the outsider’s perspective of the West. Both Jay and the popular consciousness mythologize love and the West, even though the reality of both may be more complex and painful. But then again, the pain inherent in love and the West is also a part of their appeals, their mystical allure.
That’s where the fable aspect comes into play. Slow West tells us things that simultaneously surprise and enchant us, but they’re familiar things. It’s a familiar tale told in a new way. Maclean has fashioned himself a promising debut.
7 out of 10
Slow West (2015, UK/New Zealand)
Written and directed by John Maclean; starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann.