John Maclean’s sparse Western film strikes a gorgeous balance between the untamed beauty and the cold indifference of the American frontier. The characters are drawn broadly and have archetypal motivations, the sense of humor is dry and dark, and the ultimate tone of the story is tragic. Slow West takes care to unveil its secrets with a practiced pacing, and always knows when to kick up the excitement or introduce some weirdness to keep the spectator’s attention. Though the film clocks in at under 90 minutes, it boasts the full package of powerful performances, spectacular cinematography, and a patient slow-burn story that will leave any film fan enthralled.
Slow West is simplicity incarnate. The story involves a young Irishman named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee)coming to America to find his sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father, who had to leave Ireland because of an accident. Almost immediately, Jay meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter who offers to guide Jay. Though the mistrust is initially strong, the two bond over the course of their journey to Rose. The details of Rose and Jay’s relationship, Silas’s past, and other tidbits are revealed perfectly, and in many interesting ways. A non-linear element to the storytelling, some subtle reveals, and even a weird drug-trip all play a part in fleshing out the narrative, which certainly challenges the audience. The narrative is so slight and straight, that revealing the specific turns that descend upon Jay and Silas robs the uninitiated of some great surprises, so I will spoil nothing more.
As Silas and Jay trek across the frontier, the cinematography of Robbie Ryan reveals the vast and beautiful emptiness of the American frontier. Sprawling wide shots of the two on horseback portray the untamed Colorado territory (though the film was shot in New Zealand). There’s also a gray tone to the overall palette of the picture. The shots also have a palpable length to them, drawing out the actors’ performances and slowing the film’s overall pace. It is a pretty film to watch, but because of these techniques, it can also feel cold and distant.
From the standpoint of acting, it is hard to dock Slow West in any significant way. Fassbender provides a streamlined performance, depicting Silas as a grizzled frontiersman without the agedness. He is almost always the smartest man in the room (though there are few rooms), yet still struggles with moral quandary. Silas is practiced, capable, and correct, though there are hints at a tortured past as well. His dramatic counterpart is Jay, a puppy-eyed greenhorn from Ireland. Smit-McPhee plays Jay as a novice, but a principled one willing to die for his beloved Rose. Thought he character and the performance lacks the dramatic weight of what Fassbender has to accomplish with Silas, Jay certainly has his moments, and Smit-McPhee delivers.
Thematically, the film echoes the ideas it has established with the cinematography and characterization: isolation, loneliness, and the search for companionship and warmth amid an indifferent world. These themes are reflected in the relationship between Silas and Jay, but also in Jay’s search for Rose. At the same time, there is a decided statement in Slow West about mistakes, sadness, and tragedy. Sometimes one can find respite from the cold and uncaring environment; sometimes one can escape. Sometimes, we’re not so lucky. And, though it paints a gloomy picture, Slow West ultimately champions a redemptive spirit more than a concessionary one.
Though it was released without much fanfare and has few champions, Slow West is yet another strong outing from the A24 production studio. As the first feature from writer-director John MacLean, it may also prove to be the introduction of another keen filmmaker. Though fans of Fassbender and/or the Western genre will be easy to encourage, anyone interested in solid storytelling should seek out Slow West. Those who do will discover a hidden gem, practically Shakespearean in its careful balance of comedy and tragedy.