Published Jun 11, 2015John Maclean, who is better known for his abstract musical sensibilities and his past as a member of the Beta Band, has chosen a peculiar project as his feature directorial debut. Slow West is, for all intents and purposes, a modern western. Like many other similar projects of late, it uses the traditionalist cowboy and outlaw template to assert the fundamental flaw of a nation built on a survivalist, eye-for-an-eye ethos, but it's also an ersatz pitch black comedy. It's simultaneously stark and sarcastic, attempting to make idiosyncratic humanity's inherent greed and callousness.
Where this project partially makes sense is in the depiction of its protagonist, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Jay, who hails from Scotland (like Maclean), is on a quest throughout North America to find his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Unbeknownst to Jay, Rose has a large bounty on her head for murder, which is why Silas (Michael Fassbender), a mysterious outlaw, offers to help Jay navigate and survive for a humble stipend. Jay, whose naivety and idealism are summed up in the opening scene as he quite literally shoots for the stars, believes that Silas' motivations are existential; he believes the man is lonely and has a good heart.
The tone of Slow West, while peculiar, is mostly consistent. Maclean's visual approach is classic framing with a minor oddball slant and aesthete stylization; his shots are still and precise, but the deliberate backdrop of big blue skies and wide open expanses are deliberate, juxtaposing the endless pile-up of dead bodies with the beauty of possibility and untarnished space. Though Jay and Silas are in the land of opportunity, their occasional run-ins with others in sparsely populated land always ends in bloodshed.
But the tradepost robberies, petty thievery and bounty-related shootouts aren't gratuitous or depicted with the usual sense of horror. They're matter-of-fact, a way of life. They're often played for dark comedy, exaggerating the divide between Silas' snarky, world-wearied ways and Jay's sweet-natured goodness. What's important here is that every person they encounter — save a foreign academic looking to document the customs of aboriginal people before Christianity decimates their way of life — is operating in a survivalist capacity. The inevitability of death is almost a redundancy amidst a culture resigned to the inevitable, operating in perpetual defence and self-gratification.
While the basic premise and thematic trajectory is fine for what it is, it also isn't breaking new ground. Even AMC's Hell on Wheels has beaten this assertion — one that posits American ideology as one fundamentally flawed from inception — to death; there's just not much else to say about it within the ironic structure of a western narrative. Still, if done well, it can at least entertain and provoke while essentially vomiting out the countercultural status quo. But with Slow West, there just isn't enough peripheral action or complex characterization to sustain things beyond the wonder of a slightly quirky tone and some stunning cinematography.
In many ways, Maclean has avoided taking risks while tackling a project that's presumably outside of his immediate frame of reference. This dark comedy avoids any superfluous content and secondary developments in an effort to appear deceptively simple. The harshness of the story and single-mindedness of the journey — it really is just a quest of two men confronting a handful of obstacles before reaching their destination — attempts to usurp the need to adhere to road trip movie conventions; survival, or the self-conscious realization of such, is the lesson and the purpose here. But without any new slants or any real emotional investment, it all comes off as rather banal, which is ultimately Slow West's undoing. It's fine for what it is, but it doesn't have enough substance to have any real lasting effect.