Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann
Director: John Maclean
Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
"Let's drift." This is a line delivered by dashing outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) to runaway Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is searching for the love of his life across the barren landscape of the American frontier, circa 1870. But the sentiment could just as easily be applied to writer-director John Maclean's debut Slow West overall; an archly photographed, meandering Western that seeks to subvert expectations, but instead comes off silly and contrived. This is a film that draws attention to its forced eccentricities and faux-artsy compositions, reveling in its "cool factor" without ever stopping to think whether it makes sense for the story.
In this case, there isn't much story to begin with, but that's not really a problem since most Westerns are sparse affairs. The bulk of the narrative involves Silas chaperoning Jay en route to find Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) and her father, John (Rory McCann), both of whom have a price on their heads. Though it's obvious Jay is smitten with Rose, Silas's intentions are much murkier, at least initially, and Fassbender plays the gruff outlaw with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. There are obstacles along the way; meetings with strange travelers, a shootout at a dingy store, oncoming storms, and run-ins with a deranged bounty hunter named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) that suggests Maclean is riffing on the old adage of "it's about the journey, not the destination", but neither option is all that compelling. Ultimately, there isn't much tension between Silas and Jay on their expedition, and the suspense regarding whether or not the man without a home is simply aiding the love-struck boy for his own ends once they arrive at their destination isn't really in question either. Truthfully, Maclean wants to toy with our mythologizing of the old West, adding in small grace notes concerning race and destiny, but it mainly feels as if he's fetishizing such themes rather than exploring them. Certainly, the Western is ripe for subversion (Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man springs immediately to mind), but Maclean lacks the formal rigor and intellectual conviction to contextualize his fairytale-like vision of frontier life into something illuminating.
Ultimately, Slow West is more concerned with camera placement and a quirky string-plucked score than illustrating anything revealing about this time and place in history. This is not to say that the film must be realistic or beholden to pre-set historical accuracy; only that it's sense of heightened absurdity should be grounded in rules (no matter how fanciful) that audiences can understand. Maclean leans heavily on macabre humor, and while some bits; (two riders on horseback stretching out a clothes line, for instance) elicit a chuckle, the film's cavalier response to death suggests Maclean is afraid to push his film into more daringly poignant directions. For the most part, the actors do a fine job with subpar material, but it seems criminal to cast multi-talented thesps like Fassbender and Mendelsohn and then give very little to do other than pose and play dress up. For example, a strangely erotic encounter between Silas and Payne as they stumble around in a drunken frenzy hints at their character's past history, but the scene is over just as it starts to get interesting. Meanwhile, Maclean seems to derive pleasure from withholding the essential elements of the genre; revenge, honor, poverty, aimlessness, in favor of atmospheric noodling and eccentric humor, but all of this seems integral aesthetically rather than dramatically. Additionally, though cinematographer Robbie Ryan's panoramic lensing is often striking; with breathtaking shots of wide open vistas and dusty landscapes, it also points to the film's ultimate shallowness. This is a great-looking picture with an empty core; a semi-satirical reworking of Western tropes pivoting on cartoony violence and archly stylized compositions.
Eventually, Slow West must arrive at the moment where Jay's naiveté comes crashing into the violent reality of every man for himself, but the film's bloody climax, though impressively staged, lacks the visceral power necessary for any of it to matter. Since the characters are all archetypes and the overall tone too cute by half, the high body count and ironic position Jay finds himself in by the end fails to elicit more than a shrug. The film is much too concerned with throwaway absurdity; (such as an extended montage delivered by a craggy old man concerning wanted posters and mistaken identity), to be bothered with creating a way into the characters. What's necessary for the picture to work tonally is that straddling of dark humor and intense drama; a tricky juggling act that filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers have spent their entire careers perfecting. Tommy Lee Jone's 2014 post-revisionist Western The Homesman is a more impressive example of what Maclean is trying to accomplish here; a picture which boldly balanced black comedy and intense melodrama without ever losing sight of its characters. With Slow West, Maclean treats his actors like set decoration; just another prop set against carefully arranged tableaus, seen most bluntly during the third act shootout, where the precise framing of exploding spice jars is more important than the psychological state of those doing the shooting.