Note: a version of this review appears in Volume 7, Issue 4 of Kitchen Drawer. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net
Slow West has a short running time – a mere 83 minutes – but it makes good use of each and every one of those minutes. It's a western that plays like an adaptation of a great short story; a melancholy fable about love, loss, greed, sacrifice and the harsh realities of life in the old west. The film moves at a languid pace (thus living up to its title), but it's never dull. It's an unconventional western, but it's very much a western: a tale of two men traveling west, complete with horses, villains, cowboys, Indians and a great big shootout at a great big ranch.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is a 16-year-old Scottish lad who has traveled to America in search of his sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius, The Light Between Oceans). Along the way, he meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: Days of Future Past), a veteran bounty hunter who offers to provide Jay safe passage to Rose's home in exchange for a reasonable fee. Jay reluctantly agrees, recognizing that he lacks the skills necessary to survive on his own. What he doesn't know is that Rose and her father (Rory McCann, Game of Thrones) have a $2000 bounty on their heads, and Silas intends to collect.
Fassbender offers a touching, nuanced take on a familiar sort of character: the grizzled, cynical old mercenary whose heart is slowly softened by the presence of a younger, more earnest character (recall Rooster Cogburn's gradual transformation in either version of True Grit). Eventually – and perhaps inevitably – Silas begins to experience a crisis of conscience, and wonders whether the reward is worth betraying his innocent travel companion. Rose is in danger regardless of Silas' decision, as a considerably more cold-blooded bounty hunter named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline) is also on Rose's trail.
This is such a visually rich movie, filled to the brim with compelling images that do more than offer mere aesthetic pleasure. First-time director John Maclean finds ways to enrich the story and characters with each new shot – sometimes in obvious ways (such as when a character simultaneously experiences the literal and metaphorical versions of “salt in the wound”) and sometimes in subtle ones (such as the scene in which a character simultaneously becomes literally and metaphorically directionless). There are many compositions here that feel like living paintings, and Maclean has a knack for creating images that contrast natural beauty with man-made horror.
Slow West often recalls Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man in the way it casually wanders into episodic vignettes that enhance the movie's themes without actually advancing the plot. At one point, Jay shares a memorable encounter with a deeply philosophical German writer named Werner (clearly modeled after filmmaker Werner Herzog), who bemoans the fate of Native Americans and provides one of the film's key lines: “In a short time, this will be a long time ago.” There's a brief but lovely musical interlude, a campfire story about an overambitious young outlaw and a haunting encounter at a general store located in the middle of nowhere.
The performances are lovely. Jay believes deep down that his reunion with Rose will be a happy one, but what he fails to realize is that he's living in the past while the present marches on. Based on the flashbacks we see, there is ample reason to believe that his affection for Rose far outweighs her affection for him. Smit-McPhee plays the character's heartsick yearning beautifully, and I love the way Fassbender's glares of dismissive irritation slowly transform into glances of knowing concern. Mendelsohn does a great deal with a small role, sporting a surly grin and a massive fur coat – a potent symbol of death.
Perhaps those who prefer their westerns a little more action-packed will find Slow West tedious (despite the tremendous shoot-out sequence that concludes the film), but if you're an admirer of Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch or The Coen Brothers, you'll find a great deal to enjoy in this film's gentle deadpan humor and precise, focused, artful storytelling. It's a treat to get any sort of western these days (America dropped its obsession with “horse operas” decades ago), but it's a real treat to get a western this rich and moving.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 83 minutes
Release Year: 2015