“Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact, a 16-year old kid travelled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love. His name was Jay. Her name was Rose”. This quick bit of narration opens and sets up the fairly simple story of “Slow West”. But while the story sounds pretty basic and familiar, it does several surprising things within its barely 80 minute running time.
“Slow West” is a Western with a European twist from first time writer and director John Maclean. Maclean plays with several of the genre’s well known staples, but he also brings several fresh ingredients to his film. Perhaps these contrasts are best realized in the two main characters. Jay (convincingly played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is driven by emotion, his love for Rose guiding his compass. He’s a bit of a dreamer, seeing the American West through a naive but unique and spirited lens. He is also out of element and ill equipped for the dangers in the new world. At one point he is referred to as “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves”.
Silas (Michael Fassbender) represents our familiar view of the Wild West. He’s a rough and tough bounty hunter who knows how to survive. But he has seen his sensibilities numbed and over time he has grown a bit calloused to the violence and dangers of his world. On a couple of occasions Jay simply refers to Silas as “a brute”. These two come together in a fitting way – with Silas saving Jay from a killer posing as a soldier. Jay then hires Silas for protection until he can find Rose.
The heart of the film is centered around this rather odd relationship. For Jay, Silas brings a reality check and an understanding that the West isn’t a pretty place. But at the same time Jay never loses his hope, optimism and spirit. For Silas, Jay reminds him of what it’s like to feel, to care, and to have emotion. Jay ‘s childlike exuberance clashes with Silas’ tough-as-leather exterior and begins to soften his hardened perspectives. Having this intriguing focus on the relationship gives a unique meaning to the different things they encounter along the way.
Another thing that sets this film apart is its covertly quirky tone. There is something slightly off (and I mean that in a really good way). And even more surprising, there are moments when the film is really funny showing off a daffy, Wes Anderson-esque sense of humor. It can be found in the subtle, dry wit or in some of the absurd situations which oddly feel at home in the film. Maclean weaves these lighter threads in with serious and sometimes violent ones much like we have seen in films from the Coen brothers.
“Slow West” was an absolute treat. A compelling story set within familiar Western boundaries but strikingly original in the paths it takes. The choice to film in New Zealand provides a gorgeous landscape while Fassbender and Smit-McPhee ground the story with solid performances. Even the always fun Ben Mendelsohn pops up later on. Innocence versus reality. Which wins in the end? A true spirit versus a cold callousness. Which is most important to have? “Slow West” plays with these questions and answers them in its own fun, compelling, and thoroughly entertaining way.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS