John Maclean makes his directorial debut with Slow West, a scintillating and clever western film from 2015. This is a lyrical movie and that makes a degree of sense, as Maclean is known to many as a musician with the Beta Band. He ventures through poetic clichés and plants his feet in the theatre of the delightfully absurd, crafting a genre picture that is as much an ode to the western as a reinvention.
Slow West is somewhat episodic in nature, but it does have a tender fable as its guiding light. It brims with the wildness of the American frontier in 1870, moving through a fog of characters that ranges from European settlers to Native Americans to even a rambling Rose (Caren Pistorius). The film was shot in New Zealand and in parts of Scotland, but the dreamlike nature is pure seething West.
Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay Cavendish, a 16-year-old kid from Scotland who has inexplicably traveled to Colorado in search of his lost love Rose. He meets Silas (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter who suggests that young Jay needs a chaperone on his venture. The young man agrees and hires Silas, but things don’t go smoothly.
Other characters and situations venture in and out. There is a botched store robbery that leaves two children orphaned. There is the arrival of Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a former colleague of Silas’ who has an interest in Rose. All the while, Jay focuses on his love and leads with his heart. Silas grows in admiration of his new friend as the bullets and arrows soar.
Cavendish, as he says, has come from money. He’s the son of Lady Cavendish and takes to Colorado with a guidebook and a gun, believing he can see his way through the impossible forests and never-ending vistas of the rough land. He is an optimist and he believes in love, even when he has little reason to do so.
Silas, conversely, is not an optimist. He has seen death. He knows there is danger under every rock, men willing to kill for a dollar. The world is not a hospitable place, especially in the American West. It is chaos and one can only hope to survive. Fassbender brings a certain world-weariness to Silas, which gives the impression – at least at first – that taking on Jay is a matter of relieving his ennui.
Alas, there is more to it. Slow West trots through with Jed Kurzel’s waltz-like score, stopping every so often to offer other musical touches. At one point, three men sit in the middle of nowhere and play a Congolese tune. Naturally, Jay knows what the song means. It’s about love. And love, like death, is universal.
There is comedy, too, and in rich and campy touches. Maclean, who wrote the screenplay, moves between hilarious sight gags and subtler touches. At one point, a character literally gets salt in his wounds. Another gentler touch has Jay coming up with a nifty idea for drying out wet clothes. These touches give Slow West a sense of cheek, sure, but they also underline the chaos theory.
Each comedic point has a violent counterpoint, like how the clever clothesline becomes a weapon or how the salt in the wounds actually isolates a moment of utter misery. The killing is indiscriminate, vicious, abrupt. There are no cues for it, no attempts to crack any tension. Gunshots are vulgar thumps, not the razor lasers of the spaghetti western or the full-blooded pops of genre classics.
The violence of Slow West erupts for the closing shootout, when Payne leaps up in a field and shouts “Kill that house” and his gang does the trick. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan settles low, lingering in the tall wheat and angling around the house in a series of close-ups. One hapless fool dies and gets his pants caught on a nail. Another sits bleeding. Later, shots tally the trail of the dead.
Slow West is one of the best westerns of the modern era and one of the best pictures of 2015. It is not slow in any meaningful way. It instead embarks on a curt, 84-minute jaunt through the confusion of the American West. Vistas unfold with throbbing beauty, bullets soar through the air with rickety resolve, arrows fire through hands with hysterical wit, and a gangster makes a big fur coat look damn good.
Maclean has crafted a musical and a western and a comedy and a love story. He speaks of the catastrophe to befall the Native Americans at the hands of the settlers and the chaos of the land itself. He talks of Germans stealing everything and Irishmen just trying to make a living before dying. He tells of life itself, the ins and outs and the in-betweens. And oblivion, raw disarray under Western night.