The western has been dead for years now, if the internet is to be believed, and yet good ones keep being made year after year. We've gone from classic westerns to spaghetti westerns, revisionist westerns, post-modern westerns, and urban westerns. I'm not quite sure how to categorize "Slow West," the directorial debut of musician John Maclean. Its main characters are the odd couple pairing of a cynical bounty hunter, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), and a naive Scottish teenager, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is newly arrived in America and travelling through dangerous, lawless western frontier in search of his beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius). After a chance meeting and a close brush with death, Jay pays Silas to guide him through the wilderness, but of course Silas has his own agenda.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the title, but "Slow West" is a decent description of the film's storytelling approach. Though there is the constant presence of danger, and our heroes are forced into several violent situations, the film's pacing is fairly leisurely, allowing plenty of room for character building and soaking up the atmosphere. We learn about Jay and Rose's past gradually, through several flashbacks. Silas and Jay are not the best of traveling companions at the start, but eventually find common ground after enduring several trials and tribulations together. There's a refreshing clarity and straightforwardness to the film's messages, which are embodied by Jay, the perhaps foolishly hopeful youngster who refuses to give in to cynicism and doubt despite having every reason to. It's a strangely old-fashioned and romantic outlook for a western that is so clearly revisionist at its core.
I'm not familiar with John Maclean's earlier work, but he clearly had a strong enough reputation to attract a stellar cast. In addition to Fassbender and Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann, and excellent newcomer Caren Pistorius do fine work. I'm especially impressed with Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is making a nice transition from child actor to adolescent actor, and hopefully beyond. He uses his physical awkwardness to his advantage, but never cedes any presence. And he provides a great contrast to Michael Fassbender, in the hypermasculine, lone wolf part that he's always been so good at playing. Silas is a bit underwritten, but Fassbender still does an excellent job of giving him an inner life and suggesting bits and pieces of an eventful past.
John Maclean's inexperience in features shows, particularly in the scripting, but so does his wonderful visual sense, his strong storytelling sensibilities, and a very particular sense of humor. One of the best moments of the "Slow West" comes toward the end of the second act, when the film is taking a breather after an action sequence. Jay and Silas happen across the skeleton of a man crushed by a fallen tree he was trying to cut down. It's a morbidly funny moment, but after the senseless violence we've seen the pair subjected to, it's also a strangely reassuring sign that death visits everyone both bad and good. It gives Jay and Silas something to bond over, ruminating over natural selection and its strange exceptions.
Maclean builds a version of the old west around them that is fascinating to explore. It's a harsh and unforgiving place, where death lies in wait behind every hill and tree. Hostile natives, roving bands of outlaws, and bounty hunters are only the most obvious dangers. Yet there's a palpable sense of wonder that colors the film, an almost magical realist approach to the way this world is presented. The visuals gradually become more and more stylized as the movie goes on, leading up to one of the most visually striking shootout sequences I've seen in a long time. There are some uneven tonal and pacing issues in the early going, but that climax on the picture perfect golden prairie is absolutely magnificent.
I'm still not convinced that "Slow West" is the best title for this film. It's fairly brisk and runs a lean 84 minutes. However, its charms did build on me gradually and incrementally. It revealed itself eventually to be quite a different film than I had originally anticipated. And it made me wish for more westerns like this one.