As literally reflected by its title, Western film “Slow West” is slow and languid in its offbeat exercise in genre deconstruction. It tries a number of whimsical things here and there as its archetype characters meander toward the inevitable arrival point waiting for them, but these things do not add up much to the whole although some of them are amusing or beautiful to watch. Sure, it looks like something different from conventional Western films, but it also feels more like a test drive of a mixed bag of ideas, and it may frustrate you at times even if you understand what it intends to do.
The movie is about one naive young man’s risky journey across the American West during 1870. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a Scottish lad looking for a young woman he loves, and the opening scene shows him riding alone across a remote area where a local Indian community has just been wiped out for some unspecified reason. As the camera follows him as if it were a fellow rider, we see several Indian people walking away from their burned place, and our young hero soon gets lost amidst smokes and ashes in the forest.
Shortly after his view is finally cleared, Jay comes across an Indian guy running away from a trio of uniformed guys. One of these uniformed guys tries to kill Jay while his cohorts are going after that Indian guy, but then a mysterious guy named Silas (Michael Fassbender) appears out of nowhere, and he promptly saves Jay from the peril.
After Jays hires Silas as his guide and protector, Jay’s journey is continued in the wilderness in which life is hard and violent for everyone. When they stop by a shop to buy supplies and clothes, they suddenly find themselves in the middle of an unexpected incident of violence, and Jay feels guilty as facing the consequence to which he partially contributed. It turns out that there are a bunch of outlaws moving around Jay and Silas, and Silas knows the reason because he also approached to Jay for the same thing these outlaws want. Jay somehow does not know at all that a bounty of considerable amount has been put on his girl and her father, and he does not realize either that he is virtually leading Silas to wherever she and her father are hiding at present.
As Jay is often haunted by his past memories of Rose (Caren Pistorius) during nights, we come to learn what happened between them back there in Scotland. While they were friendly to each other, Rose wanted themselves to be remained as good friends, probably because she was well aware of the social boundaries between them as a peasant girl who knew better. Jay, who happened to be the nephew of a wealthy landowner, innocently believed he could marry her regardless of whether his uncle approved of that, and that inadvertently led to an unfortunate happening which prompted Rose and her father to flee to America.
While Jay still does not lose his quite innocent and idealistic view on life and people despite what he has gone through in the wilderness of American West (Silas dryly observes, “To him, we were in a land of hope and good will.”), Silas is cynical and skeptical as a jaded man who probably has a long history of violence and survival behind his taciturn appearance. “All I’m sayin’ is there’s more to life than just surviving”, says Jay. “Yeah. There’s dyin’”, says Silas in return.
Around the point when a character played by Ben Mendelsohn approaches to them, the mood becomes a bit tense, but the director/writer John Maclean keeps things loose and relaxed as throwing some moments of offbeat humor around his terse plot. There is an absurd episode about a hapless outlaw eager to be notorious enough to have a price on his head, and I like how an amusingly inventive way of drying clothes is later utilized for a nice punchline for good laugh. Like many other Western films, the movie eventually culminates to a shootout sequence, but this sequence is handled in a rather detached manner, and there is a certain irony in how things are resolved in the end.
The movie is admirable in its technical aspects. The cinematographer Robbie Ryan did a superb job of palpably presenting those wide landscapes on the screen with considerable lyrical beauty, and his crisp cinematography may be the best character in the film. The sparse score by Jed Kurzel is effective as one of the crucial elements in setting the dry, remote tone of the film, and it occasionally sounds wryly jaunty while never interrupting the mood.
But I felt distant to its story and characters, which I found too thin and incohesive to engage me even during my second viewing. I understand that the movie does not intend to be ‘realistic’ (the movie was mostly shot in New Zealand, by the way), but I was frequently distracted by its artificial sides, and, rather than believing in their characters and the world they inhabit, I only observed how the actors managed to carry their sketchy characters with their own presences and talents. While Michael Fassbender always finds something interesting to play as usual with the clear influence from Clint Eastwood and other stoic Western film stars (he even has a cigar to chomp in his mouth, for instance), Kodi Smit-McPhee complements his co-star well with his boyish appearance, and Ben Mendelsohn, a veteran Australian actor who has been more notable since his chilling turn in “Animal Kingdom” (2010), has a little theatrical fun with his seedy character.
“Slow West”, which received the World Cinema Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is an interesting attempt of genre experiment, but the overall result is as half-baked as Jim Jarmusch’s equally unconventional Western film “Dead Man” (1995). Both of them are odd movies indeed, but there are not enough things to hold my interest besides their defiant oddness, even though I admired several visual goodies inside them. “Slow West” is mercifully short with the running time of 84 minutes and it is not completely a waste of time, but you can still see that there is not enough substance beyond its quirky style.
Anyway, it goes without saying that John Maclean is a promising filmmaker to watch considering the competent direction of his debut feature film, and I guess he simply explored what he could do with a genre like many other first-time directors. In the next time, he will probably give us something better than such a mildly frustrating genre doodling like this.