We aren’t tired of Westerns yet! This year will see new releases from big names like Quentin Tarantino and Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu. One film that may have passed under your radar is Slow West, the latest edition to the longstanding genre. While it may not become one of the revered western classics, it represents it well, adding some of its own personal flair to the countless traditions and tropes we’ve come to love and expect (while hanging on to some that need to be retired).
The film follows a young immigrant named Jay (played by an extra-gangly-looking Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he wanders the incredibly vast, inherently hostile landscape of the western frontier in his quest to be reunited with his one true love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). A mysterious bandit called Silas (Michael Fassbender) takes it upon himself to escort Jay on his crusade (for a small sum of course) and the pair embark on a series of misadventures. Along the way they encounter Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his gang of ruffians. Needless to say, there is a shootout at the end.
While the plot seems deceptively simple (and for the most part, it is) there are a few welcome twists (including a gruesome, yet oddly satisfying tribute to all of the fallen characters at the end) that allow the film to come into its own, but only just. Writer/director John Maclean is new to the game (Slow West is his first feature), and this is somewhat apparent, as he sticks largely to the tried-and-true western motifs of many directors before him. There’s the mysterious gunslinger that appears out of the wild to settle the conflict exactly when he needs to, the blood and gore of the final shootout, and the bonding over the campfire scenes, to name a few.
The story of Slow West takes an economical approach to the standard western plot, and trims a lot of the excess. Maclean favours stark, uninhabited landscapes and few characters over large set pieces and extra subplots. This creates a more streamlined story, but makes for a slower progression (you can’t say they didn’t warn you with the film’s title…). The story meanders until about the halfway point, but it picks up when Payne’s gang catches up with the two heroes. Despite knowing roughly where the film’s story is going as it strides on, it’s the characters that make it enjoyable through to the end, where there’s an unexpected but refreshing turn of events.
As with the plot, it’s clear where the Jay and Silas’ relationship is going. They get off to a rocky start, with Silas’ abrasive personality grating against Jay’s noble disposition. However, the two eventually rub off on one another as Jay’s hopeful optimism and meditative philosophy softens Silas, while his own survival instincts make a man out of Jay. Fassbender nails the cold, straight-talking gunslinger archetype, and fills his jangling boots well. But it is Smit-McPhee who really gives the film its own identity. While at first he seems laughably out of place, sporting his Sunday best while tromping through wind-swept plains and speaking in his character’s native Scottish accent, it’s hard not to sympathize with his quest for love.
Mendelsohn’s Payne carries a disarming yet, sinister swagger not unlike his character in the Netflix show Bloodline. He and his rowdy gang of misfits don’t get a lot of screen time, but they make the most of it, particularly an old bandit and his surprise-ending story. Although he is a worthy opponent to Fassbender’s Silas (fur coat and all), his backstory and relationship to the protagonists is sadly underdeveloped.
So the big question: should you rush out to the nearest theatre to catch Slow West? If westerns are your thing, I would say check it out. Hell, if Michael Fassbender’s your thing, watch it. With such a rich history to the genre, there’s a certain pedigree when it comes to making a western, and Maclean respects this while attempting to make it his own. He succeeds on a micro scale, but leans a little too heavily on the pioneers before him when it comes to the story. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, and it’s not going to single-handedly revitalize the genre. Still, it’s fun to watch Fassbender and McPhee play cowboys, and Maclean saves a nice twist for the film’s climax.