Published Jul 08, 2015Amidst the many interviews with cast and crewmembers included with the Blu-ray release of John Maclean's feature directorial debut, Slow West, there is some speculation about why it was made. Everyone agrees that Maclean is a fan of the Western genre. Mentions are made of past influences, and a few people suggest that the goal here was to put a European spin or sensibility on the lawless western frontier.
Historically, movies about the wild west, in addition to constructing an idealized perception of the "hero" — ostensibly, a male ego fantasy projection about forced ideological (via a stoic cowboy) reconstruction driven chiefly by Judeo-Christian morality — were about the idea of escaping persecution and finding some sort of freedom in the world. In Slow West, 17-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled from Scotland to pursue his first love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Once there, his romantic ideals are challenged by a generalized nihilistic ethos demonstrated by the many lone men traveling through the American frontier, manipulating, killing and stealing from each other.
Even the title denotes a deliberate shift in perspective, having a tongue-in-cheek candour about the banality of it all, which gives some context to the subtly satiric and darkly comic tone. Once Jay encounters Silas (Michael Fassbender) and assumes he's found a friend motivated by the spirit of human kindness, the joke stems from Jay's sweet-natured gullibility. Rose has a bounty on her head, and Silas could benefit from having a guide — her lover — lead him to her.
In truth, the basic coming-of-age/road movie framework gives this surprisingly simple and concise bit of American critique more of a tragic foundation. What's being learned here is the value of developing a misanthropic, survivalist sensibility. And whether or not Jay actually finds Rose is secondary to the lesson that Maclean is trying to convey about the falseness of freedom and the sweet-natured ignorance of believing that an anarchic society can function.
And while Smit-McPhee, Fassbender and, particularly, Ben Mendolsohn as a shifty bounty hunter all turn in effective performances and some of the cinematography is quite stunning, there's an overwhelming sense that Slow West is lacking something. In structure, it's attempting to be deceptively simple: Jay encounters a handful of obstacles (all of which demonstrate the various degrees of abject morality dominating America), helps motivate Silas and ultimately winds up in a conflict. This is fine, but since the litany of modern westerns being made of late are primarily deconstructionist critiques — with far more intensity and purpose than this milquetoast yarn — the big question here is, "So what?"
Slow West just doesn't say or do anything that Young Ones or True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma didn't say or do more effectively. It's sort of a modest reiteration of current cultural perceptions of the genre with a slightly askew tone. And since that tone doesn't exactly reinvent this as a unique or invigorating work, there's a feeling of emptiness where meaning should be. With a little more complexity, or even a dialogue that extends beyond the trajectory of aggressively self-serving human behaviour, this otherwise well-packaged film could have been more than what it is. But, as it stands, Slow West is just a very pretty idea that never quite fulfills its potential.