The Western is a genre that defined early American filmmaking, and though it’s popularity has waned over the years, it’s never completely gone away and it never will. There is something infinitely cinematic about the wild west. The open landscapes, people coming from all over the world to live in a young country still finding itself, and of course, the violence. John Maclean’s directorial debut Slow West has all of these elements and more.
Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels from Scotland to America in search of Rose, a girl he loves who was forced to flee their homeland. It is immediately apparent that he is out of his element in many ways. Silas (Michael Fassbender) encounters the posh young Scot in the woods and recognizes the opportunity to make a little money as his much needed guide and body guard. Unbeknownst to Jay, he’s also leading one of the many bounty hunters looking for Rose right to her. They encounter many colorful characters along the way, including Silas’ former cohort, the aptly named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) who is simultaneously menacing and friendly. Like many Westerns, it ultimately becomes a game of who to place your trust in, and the answer is usually nobody.
Shot on location in New Zealand, the film is beautiful to look at. Everything about the aesthetic and art design is spot on, and the cast, particularly Fassbender and Mendelsohn, embody their characters perfectly. To see them in costume is enough pique the interest of any fan of the genre and make you wonder how they’ve made this far into their careers without playing cowboys before.
Death for the innocent and guilty alike litters the film yet there’s a brutal humour to it all, particularly in its treatment of Jay, whom Maclean seems to take great pleasure in punishing for his naiveté. He suffers slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, often literally, and his only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As more salt continuously gets thrown into his wounds, it goes past the point of sad and becomes almost comical. It’s a dark, sardonic humour that will likely rub those who don’t recognize it the wrong way.
With a kind of dreamlike innocence, the plot become secondary to the characters and setting. There is a driving narrative, but seemingly important parts of it get glossed over with little to no consideration, sometimes to the film’s detriment. Fortunately it still has a enough going for it to forgive this.
I would argue that even though there are fewer of them these days, Westerns are actually better than ever. With the exception of Sergio Leone’s films and a couple of John Ford’s, almost every Western that came before Unforgiven feels extremely dated. Revisionist Westerns such as The Assassination of Jesse James, The Proposition, and True Grit (2010) aren’t just among the best Westerns ever made, but I’d place them among the best films made in the last 15 years. Slow West fits well into this new take on the classic genre, it probably won’t end up being a classic, but it’s damn good and a hell of a debut.
Read our interview with John Maclean here.