The genre in which John Wayne once set out to kill his niece because she’d had hands laid on her by an “Injun” has become more reflective in recent years; elegiac even.
The Western is now less concerned with drawling former Confederates and more about allegory, about the decline of myth and the uncertain rise of civilization al a Unforgiven or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. While Slow West certainly lacks their narrative scope and ambition, it offers its own delights with a simple sort of lyricism.
The film follows Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a highborn Scot who travels to the “baking heart of America” in search of his lost love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Jay is both a hopeless romantic and a tragic one — pale and dark-eyed, stiff and awkward, he whimsically picks out the stars in the sky with his six-shooter and sleeps with it clasped against his chest. He seems a person unlikely to survive the lawlessness of the Old West, and indeed he almost doesn’t, that is till he acquires the cigar-chomping Silas (Michael Fassbender) as chaperone.
Their journey west towards Rose — Jay out of love, Silas for less noble reasons — is marked by vibrant natural beauty, which first-time director John Maclean lends a depth and realism to through strategic use of tracking shots. It’s astounding that a world in where sun-burnt brutes scorch the campsites of supposed savages amidst choking mists there’s also a place for fields of bright yellow corn and a clean yellow home on the range. Rose, too, is shown as a idealized figure, grey shawl Gothically blowing about her on the Scottish bluffs.
But Slow West is also careful to cut beneath the surface of the legend. Rifling through his charge’s belongings, Silas throws away a teakettle and a travel guide; Jay’s idea of the necessary accoutrement when traveling cross country, a country where the general store sells a bullet-riddled, blood-stained suit jacket as new. Similarly the outlaws here include a desperate couple, possibly Norwegian, who’ve left their kids on the front stoop and Payne (the ubiquitous Ben Mendelssohn) a fur-laden bounty hunter who comes bearing absinthe.
As Jay poetically notes, “Love is universal, like death”, be it Jay’s love for Rose, the hulking, mustached Mr. Ross’ (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann) for his daughter, or the unstated bond between Jay and Silas. But Rose’s feelings may not mirror Jay’s and Silas has his own agenda — intense and familiar, a russety-colored rogue, it’s a role that plays to Fassbender’s strengths, especially given the Eastwood resemblance. It’s a shame that he and Smit-McPhee will likely have little screen-time together in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Death, meanwhile, is foregrounded throughout the film: the corpse of man shot in the eye or the skeleton of a cow blocking a pass. There’s violence and suffering, dreams and toil, but also hope and humor; one scene finds our duo grinning morbidly at the sight of an axe-wielding skeleton crushed beneath a tree. Violence comes in a flurry, shots back and forth, and a single slap or push can irrevocably alter the course of lives. Gunfighters rise and fall like the tin figures at a fairground attraction — indeed, there’s a sense of play about the whole affair.
With its touches of surreal poetry —like the three-man band Jay and Silas encounter in the middle of nowhere or the anecdote/flashback about wanted posters — Slow West feels a bit like a technicolor version of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Surprisingly straightforward and unadorned, the film is dramatically thin, more symbolic than fully realized, but its 84-minute run-time makes for a quick, enjoyable burn.
Throw in Robbie Ryan’s luscious cinematography and a decent if unremarkable string score and you’ve got a film well worth hitting the trail for.