The Western film has been pronounced dead more times than I can count. Still, once in a while someone makes a Western. For example, a young Scottish writer-director, John Maclean, has just made one, his first feature length film, called Slow West. I think that might be a pun on “Go West,” but I’m not sure. I do know that the modesty with which Maclean has approached the genre helps make the film succeed. Filmmakers try too often to produce huge masterpieces that hit you over the head with their genius, and they usually fail for that very reason. Maclean knows how to restrain that impulse—he also has a unique sense of humor and an instinct for the darker aspects of the Western.
The story follows a 19-year-old Scottish innocent named Jay Cavendish, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has come to America to find the love of his life, Rose Ross. Rose fled Scotland with her father after an accidental killing that Jay feels he helped cause. In the wilds of Colorado he encounters a gunman named Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, who offers protection and aid in finding her, for a fee. Jay doesn’t realize that Silas is a bounty hunter who is after Rose himself for a posted two thousand dollar reward.
There’s a definite quality of self-awareness in all this, made explicit by Maclean in odd and drily humorous ways. At one point, a drifter says to Jay that “In a short time, this will be long ago.” And a story told within the film overturns the time-worn cliché of the “Wanted” poster in amusing fashion. The film manages to pull all this off without becoming precious or farcical—this is by no means a parody. For the most part, Maclean plays it straight, but there’s an allusive, intriguing feel to the dialogue that causes us to step back a little even though we’re drawn into the story.
The vision of the West presented here is one of constant threat by self-seeking bandits and scoundrels—a place where death by violence is terrifyingly sudden. In the background are the Indians, who make occasional appearances in the film, but who really exemplify the cruel and unjust nature of the whole western enterprise—a giant act of theft against their life and land.
Smit-McPhee is suitably nervous and vulnerable, and Fassbender, whose American accent has definitely improved, anchors the film as the laconic, inscrutable antihero, a sort of take-off on the Clint Eastwood persona. Ben Mendelsohn, who is Australian, has a juicy role as one of Silas’s former outlaw friends. In fact, none of the main actors are American—the film was shot in New Zealand, the awesome beauty of the landscape there standing in rather nicely for the Colorado Rockies.
Slow West has a gorgeous visual texture, and it balances its fatalism with a precarious romantic streak. The film doesn’t try to be profound. It’s just good.