Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelson
Director: John Maclean
Mood: If you want to watch a Western but have watched too many Westerns lately so you need to sneak a broader viewing experience past your own self while choosing the movie.
I’m not gonna lie, I bought Slow West expecting an action Western because of Michael Fassbender. I mean come on, he played Magneto!
I assumed that the title was ironic. But nope, this movie is a sloooooooow burn.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s an enjoyable kind of slow, which it turns out is REALLY hard to explain – but I’ll give it a shot because that’s my job here:
- Slow West is like a forlorn Scottish teenage love story that’s been dropped into an Old West full of desperate immigrants and determined thieves, and throughout it all you can’t shake the feeling of a bizarre faerie tale-slash-drug trip. And this tale has a Grimm ending.
Slow West takes place in an 1870s Old West that looks basically nothing like the Old West, due to being shot in New Zealand. Everything is lush and clean and beautiful, and kind of feels like a national park.
Young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has come from Scotland in pursuit of his true love, a lass named Rose Ross. You don’t know why she’s in America, but that story quickly starts to unfold through flashbacks.
Jay hires a gruff bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to escort him safely on his journey. Silas knows something about Jay’s girl that he’s not sharing. They encounter several not-terrible-but-also-not-good people, go on an absinthe binge, and are quietly stalked by other bounty hunters.
This all builds toward a showdown that IS classically Western and gives you everything you could want from a shootout, including an impressive body count for such a small cast.
The story is mostly driven by Jay’s mission and backstory, so you spend most of the screen time with a sensitive youth who at times feels like he’s at prep school rather than in some version of the West.
Smit-McPhee delivers a strong performance for the character. I just got bored with Jay’s teenage dream in the same way I’m sure parents roll their eyes when their kids moan about being in love with every new crush. There wasn’t enough buildup or chemistry in the flashbacks to make me really buy into his purpose.
What DID keep me hooked was everything else going on in this movie, and the cast of smaller characters:
- Ben Mendelson as bounty hunter Payne, delivering a performance that’s equal parts
- Eddie Campbell as posse member Skelly, who plays a masterful storyteller but is clearly one himself
- Andrew Robertt as seemingly empathetic author Werner, who cares deeply about cultural genocide but is cool with horse thievery – I would watch an entire movie about this character
- Madeleine Sami as the achingly desperate Swede who, like many pioneers at that time, has been driven to drastic measures by the harsh frontier life
- The tiny appearances that give Slow West its semi-fantastical feel, like the trio of Congolese singers and Kotori (Kalani Queypo), who gets zero story but manages to make you FEEL like he has a rich and wild story anyway
Fassbender is a quiet backseat presence throughout, and you don’t get all the way into his character until that glorious final shootout. That’s when his grit boils to the surface, and you see him flex those action chops. More of his character would have made this more my kind of Western.
Slow West almost defies description, because it’s a melting pot of several themes and genres. And in that way, it’s kind of a perfect tale of the American West – written and directed by a Scotsman, with a cast of immigrants and non-Americans, and shot nowhere near the United States.
It definitely feels poetic. The overall story AND some of the stories told by the characters are so insightful that it’s almost too smart to be a Western. Although director John Maclean supposedly studied the classic Westerns to make this movie, it doesn’t read that way. It will give you tiny, subtle hints of quirky Westerns like Dead Man, Wild Bill, The Assassination of Jesse James, and the last part of Seraphim Falls.
The cinematography is what does it – it’s modern and artistic, richly detailed and curious; combined with the whimsical score, you find yourself skipping merrily along behind Jay and believing that everything is great. Which is why the ending is such a shock. I won’t spoil it, but it’s supremely blunt and packs a morbidly funny reference to salt in a wound.
Slow West was a film festival darling, earning major praise at Sundance, and has high ratings on most review websites. I can’t give it quite that much praise, because like I said, I didn’t fall for the love story and I suspect I’m not the target audience. But I did enjoy it as a gorgeously shot, offbeat kind of alternative Western.
This is probably the perfect Western for younger audiences who have either never seen classic Westerns, or never liked them. It radiates youthful freshness. And if it can get more people into Westerns so more of them can be made, I’m all for it.