Slow West a Terse Little Debut Western
by Kristin Battestella
I finally got to see the 2015 full length directorial debut Slow West, and despite a few structural hiccups, this picture delivers a visually stunning and ironic tale befitting of its titular genre.
It's 1870 and young noble Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels to Colorado to find his sweetheart Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). After a confrontation turned deadly, Rose and her father John (Rory McCann) have fled from Scotland. Wanted for murder, the Ross family has a price on its head, attracting numerous bounty hunters across the dangerous frontier territory. Loner Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) helps Jay in his quest, but unfortunately, the outlaw Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) pursues them in hopes that Jay will lead his gang to their $2,000 quarry.
I've been impressed with writer and director John Maclean's award winning short film Pitch Black Heist as well as the notion of his Man on a Motorcycle being filmed entirely with camera phones. Not only are westerns few and far between this century, but it's also intriguing to see British, Scottish, and Irish influences upon something as quintessentially American as the Old West – and Slow West was filmed in New Zealand! The opening narration establishes the harsh frontier circumstances with no frills sentences, and gunshots, burned villages, chased savages, and cavalry deserters further set the unforgiving mood. Everyone is suspicious of everybody, desperate immigrants don't know what they are doing, and each situation in Slow West becomes more drastic and deadly. Additional voiceovers from Silas, however, feel obvious or unnecessary – a head hopping interference whilst we're also in Jay's memories with disjointed, intercut flashbacks. Instead of distracting from the past and present, the seemingly happy recollections and reasons for fleeing Scotland should have come in one early sequence to bookend with the superb shootout finale and concluding narration. The audience realizes Jay's history is blurred with young love and his future hopes are clouded over Rose, who is the cause of his journey. So either Maclean unnecessarily underestimates his story or a Hollywood fuddy duddy ordered the plot be spelled out for the usually spoon fed American audience. In fact, we don't need to see Jay's previous infatuation with Rose at all; his maturing adventure with Silas is more dynamic and the dream sequence halfway through Slow West better encapsulates his fears via prophetic foreshadowing and several symbolic pieces. Everything that is going to happen in Slow West is alluded to somewhere in the film, and this is a very pleasing layer for the viewer to digest as we observe the players themselves realizing what's in store. Maybe the dry humor will be off for some, but Slow West is a sardonic, modern piece wrapped in traditional western motifs. Bounty hunter codes, honor, and rivalry are critiqued alongside veiled statements regarding how a native population will be obliterated if only to think fondly of them and be nostalgic about it later. With these numerous character commentaries, it's surprising Slow West is so short at under an hour and a half. However, the picture progresses as necessary with well paced reflection and quiet conversation balanced within the forward moving journey and ultimate siege action.
Now also of X-men: Apocalypse alongside fellow mutant Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee is perfect as the young Scottish noble Jay Cavendish. He's gotten this far, but is also traveling heavy, totally lost, and in need of help but not taking any hints. The teapot tossed from the suitcase and his erroneous clinging to a guide book reveal how in over his head Jay really is – religious education and progressive Darwin won't help him here. Jay looks to the stars for his map and his dreams, and though cute and innocent in his believing of a railroad to the moon and meeting moon people, that idyllic thinking proves a detriment. More than once Jay's trusting nature gets the better of him in Slow West – he sees the trip as an adventure full of interesting characters despite gross circumstances, theft consequences, and an inability to help amid the desperation. He kills surprisingly quickly if he's killing for Rose and proves some ingenuity on the way, deducing Silas' bounty intentions even while claiming Silas is lonely brute looking for more than survival. There are plot holes, however, that compromise the character and rightly or wrongly create questions in Slow West. How did Jay know where to find Rose if the expert bounty hunters familiar with the area couldn't? If she was so easy to find, why did it take everyone so long to do so? Once Jay knows he is leading deadly pursuers to her, why does he continue on his way toward Rose? If he is so in love with her and assured of their future together, why is Jay jealous and imagining chemistry between his “friend” Silas and his unbedded Rose before the two have actually met? Is Jay on some subconscious level aware of her platonic feelings, knowing he is not manly or as would be appealing to her as the more rugged Silas? Why doesn't he just shout, “Hi, it's me, Jay!” the way Silas smartly declares himself? How many people end up dead because he is where he doesn't belong? Why is Jay's destiny so entwined with Silas, and who is actually leading whom to Rose and that idyllic, happy family home? Jay is really quite clueless and very stupid in how he causes exactly what he was trying to prevent. Everything in Slow West is actually his fault, and although wise viewers may light bulb his fate right before it happens thanks to some great clues, Jay's literally getting salt in an open wound delusion wonderfully caps off the irony in Slow West.
Since he is also wearing a producer hat for Slow West, I was surprised by how little promotion Michael Fassbender did for this offbeat, independent gem in need of his commercial presence, but he was filming the Steve Jobs biopic while Slow West studded the festival circuit. Fortunately, the Shame star is up to his usual acting chops in front of the camera from a great introduction to his commanding on horseback stature. Silas is a ruthless, rugged drifter who abides by no law and demands cash to help Jay. He doesn't want to hear Jay's story and doesn't actually converse with him much – when Silas speaks, it's clip, effective, and belittling. Not to worry, a few words regarding a mixed Irish and Canadian history explain away Fassbender's accent, and he certainly looks like he could make it out in the wild with his chewed cigar, cowboy hat, and chiseled profile. Despite his harsh distance, Silas develops a unique fondness for Jay, becoming a stern father figure. Again, the voiceover is redundant at times, for the audience sees his cynicism already. The extra words don't shed further light on any internal or hidden motivations for Silas, and between Maclean's visuals and Fassbender's stoic action, the onscreen revelations simmer enough in Slow West. Why does Silas really help Jay? Maybe even he isn't so sure once these ideas about nicer living are presented to him instead of an on the run financial reward. Silas sits up rather than bed down to sleep, robs when he needs it, and doesn't let the toughness of the land nor its hungry and orphaned get to him. Once he travels with Jay, however, he doesn't kill when he doesn't have to, refuses whiskey, and finds some humor at Jay's expense. Silas teaching Jay how to shave with a seemingly dangerous knife actually reveals a tender trust and protective nature. He sees right through Jay from the beginning, and for all his posturing about his lawless past against Jay's happy talk, the viewer believes there may be a bit of civilized potential in Silas yet.
Likewise, Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline) is an unstable and intrusive if too brief delight as the wild but coy and appropriately named Payne. He's an outlaw with no scruples who knows more than he is saying yet his history with Silas is played wonderfully in one terse sequence. Had the film been longer, a few more spoken one on one words between the two would have been a treat, but their relationship can be surmised through the chewy performances without those narrative quips. Fellow gang member Eddie Campbell (Top of the Lake) as Skeller also provides a crusty anecdotal warning of a lawless land where the smallest emotion or mistake can inadvertently kill you. Rory McCann (Game of Thrones) is fun to see as John Ross, too, but his hardworking, warm father serves more as a necessary plot point paired down to only a few choice scenes to add bounty hunter foreshadowing and erroneous assumptions about a daughter presumed to be the wife of an older man. Again, I'm not sure we should see Caren Pistorius (Offspring) as Rose as much as we do in the unreliable flashbacks or in several brief establishing scenes. Thanks to Jay's deluded recountings to Silas, the audience has already realized the aptly named Rose isn't a glowing flower worthy of coming all this way to find. Thus, we don't need to know her location until the story is literally on her door step, where her thorns are ultimately revealed by Rose's capable pioneer ways in the excellent finale. She's a good shot, able to defend herself without Jay's help, and at last, not what he thought her to be.
Rather than the dark, gritty realism that permeates over period pieces, starlight, night time blue hues, and very bright, crisp skyscapes give Slow West a surreal patina. For a modern city cynic who doesn't see such starfields, that apparent uber glow suggestion could be a negative, as the superb New Zealand locales look too clean, raw, and untouched to be real. However, isolated trading posts, tiny wagons, and one room cabins in the middle of nowhere represent the encroaching civilization desperate for a foothold in a vast unknown littered with fallen trees, leftover bones, perilous rainstorms, and an unyielding lawlessness. The substituting Colorado wilds aren't as immediately recognizable as say Monument Valley and the famed John Ford country filming locations from mid century westerns of old, but more importantly, if audiences didn't know Slow West was filmed in New Zealand, most viewers would not know the difference. The music in Slow West, unfortunately, feels uneven and out of place with whimsical strings contributing to the awkwardness in the flashbacks. That may be intentional, but the witty tunes do better in the sparse, sardonic scenes between Silas and Jay. It's not portrayed as sophisticated with the spoons and sugar and used negatively, but it's nice to see absinthe onscreen, if that doesn't sound too weird. A bad, envious green contrasting the wonderfully well framed, picturesque photography of Slow West – potentially poisonous mushrooms loom large in the foreground before a desperate, cowering boy, and Maclean uses his exceptional visuals as storytelling workhorses beautifully.
It is such a pity that Slow West received a limited box office release. Amid widespread acclaim, a rolling festival tour, and the strategic video on demand partnership between distributor A24 and Direct TV, I was surprised to see Slow West play locally in Philadelphia for only a blink and you miss it week. It made me want to see the elusive western all the more, but at a maximum 54 theaters in just over a month with $200,000 odd return, my wanting to see Slow West didn't help it succeed at the box office any. Though it is a sign of the new technological cinema times, this new industry approach or measure of success confuses me. Is Slow West a direct to video release and thus considered a seemingly inferior picture or is it a lauded cinema release that nonetheless flopped at the box office? Both of those old schools of thought seem negative, and Slow West should most certainly not be judged on any kind of on paper, statistical wrappings. Actually, this is one of those rare films where the picture pretty much speaks for itself. Though I do wish Pitch Black Heist and Man on a Motorcycle had been included on the Slow West blu-ray release and the deleted scenes here were rightfully cut, there is a short behind the scenes feature on the set. And hey, those gun clicks and revolver sounds are a fun little accent on the video menus.
Slow West doesn't seem like the kind of movie that everyone will like. It's simple linear story is slightly muddled by the uneven narration and spoon fed flashbacks; the titular pace and ironic subtly asks a lot of contemporary audiences unaccustomed to brooding westerns. Despite these perceived bumps in the framework or the increasing erosion of viewer attention spans, Slow West wins with its foreshadowing layers and winking character development. I could discuss this picture much further, but no spoilers are better here. The superior elements of Slow West make the audience think, and the camerawork is a stunning treat for the eye. There are no Hollywood must dos amid the poetic jokes in Slow West, and this refreshing, delightful, full length debut should be seen at least twice for full dramatic wonder.