A crafty subversion of the Western genre, Slow West is in turns hypnotic, lyrical, and absurd. It’s a pitch-black dark comedy centered on a hopelessly romantic quest that’s more interested in episodic beats than it is a cohesive narrative, which means it won’t be for everyone. Slow West is not badly paced—not at all—but it does present a challenge to the viewer. It’s not slow so much as wandering, and you have to be willing to roll with deeply weird moments interspersed with violence and tragedy. This is a spare and unsparing film that shouldn’t work, but it hangs together thanks to writer/director John Maclean’s control and nuanced approached—a major feat given this is his first feature film.
Slow West follows the westward travails of Jay, an aristocrat from Scotland who is chasing after his lost love, a country girl named Rose, who is on the run with her father after an accident in Scotland forces them to flee. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, and while he struggles with his Scottish accent, Smit-McPhee’s physicality is perfect for the role. With his poetic looks and slight frame, he’s starkly out of place in the American West—which is actually New Zealand because there’s not enough actual American West left—and contrasts nicely with Michael Fassbender’s far more rugged and grimy Silas, a typically taciturn drifter. It’s 1870 and the West is a place of bounty hunters and gunslingers, though Silas’s narration implies that men “outside the law”, like him, are finding it increasingly hard to move around.
Not as hard as the American Indians, though, who are shown alternately on the run, burned out, and gunned down. In one weird layover scene Jay spends the night with a man who claims to be cataloging the genocide of the “aboriginal tribes”. It’s a modernist insert but it works in context of Slow West’s steady and damning indictment of the glorification of the Western mythos in Hollywood Westerns. Stylistically, Slow West is every inch a Western, with lots of glorious wide shots of vast landscapes—courtesy outstanding lensing by cinematographer Robbie Ryan—and a populace made up of drifters and desperadoes, but it’s really a deconstruction of the genre. In each episodic interaction between characters Maclean reveals layers of harsh reality under the typical Hollywood trappings of a Western.
For instance, in one scene Silas and Jay enter a trading post, followed by an immigrant couple who try to rob the place. The violence escalates in increasingly tragic ways until, fleeing the scene, they’re confronted with the now-orphaned children of the immigrants. “Well shit,” Silas says. Later, after they’ve left the kids behind, Jay insists they could have taken them in. “Taken them in where?” Silas responds, looking at the hostile landscape they’re riding through. Moments like this are peppered throughout the film, in which the good intentions of right morality are confronted with the harsh realities of frontier life. Silas’s world is one of bare-bones survival and every man for himself, at least until Jay’s romanticism gives him another reason to exist.
There’s also a surprisingly feminist coda on Slow West. For much of the film we only see Rose in Jay’s flashbacks, and his love for her is selfish and boyish and markedly possessive—he keeps saying “she’s mine” and acting like they should be together simply because he wishes it. When we properly meet Rose in act three, just in time for the guns-out finale, she’s a tough woman making a life for herself on the frontier. She’s smart and wily—smarter than her father, for sure—and she proves to be a calm and deadly force in her own right. And she rejects Jay’s pursuit in a truly amazing, did-NOT-see-that-coming way. Like Ex-Machina, Slow West deals with how men define women, and what happens when women go outside those narrow definitions.
Slow West is beautiful to look at and rewarding to parse, but it does require patience and a high tolerance for seemingly pointless sidebars as the plot is less concerned with linear narrative than it is exploring the nooks and crannies of the Western genre. It’s not for everyone but everyone should give it a shot because it’s the kind of film that will offer different insights and observations for each viewer. It has layers of weird wrapped around a core of oddball with a nougaty center of delicious genre deconstructionism.
Slow West is available On Demand in the U.S. now and will hit select Canadian Theatres on June 12th. .
Attached - Michael Fassbender at the Cannes premiere of Macbeth.