Go West, Young Man

Slow West
(UK/New Zealand, 84 min.)
Written and directed by John Maclean
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius
Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Slow West.
Courtesy Soda Pictures.

The American West is a young country, but it’s no place for young men. Rough outlaws, new frontiers, lawlessness, and gunslinging call for seasoned experience and not for youthful idealism. The westerner is a seasoned old salt (see: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones) and the Wild West is a place for sunsets instead of sunrises. Young Scottish whippersnapper Jay (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) learns the lessons of the West the hard way in Slow West, the solid new western from writer/director John Maclean. Maclean, making his feature debut here after delivering great shorts like Pitch Black Heist, which one can stream here, provides a lean, mean, and rugged western with Slow West. The film deservedly scored the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance this year, and this wholly un-American western takes a marksman’s aim at the myth and lore behind Manifest Destiny romps of the genre.

This tale of the futile violence of western expansionism is taut and gritty as Jay rides across Colorado in the late 1800s to be reunited with his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who’s on the lam from Scotland after she and her daddy (Rory McCann) accidentally killed a man. Jay gets a taste for the reality of the West when he stumbles across a trio of gunslingers hunting down a Native American and informs their gun-totin’ leader that he simply wants to find his girl. “We’re all just sons of bitches,” is the man’s reply before he’s promptly shot in the face and meets an end that many a man will encounter whilst Jay heads west.

The bullet that kills the old cuss hails from the barrel of the gun sported by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who promptly sees an opportunity to earn some money and offers to escort (re: babysit) Jay and protect him as he traverses the dry countryside for the first time. How gentlemanly and sporting of him.

Jay and Silas get along well enough as men of different minds and temperaments do in the Wild West. They ride single file (Silas insists) and shoot folks in self-defence but never for sport. Neither one is really a man for words, and the silence between Jay and Silas conveys an unspoken code and honour for the things men need to do to survive in a place as violent and rapidly changing as the stormy West. Both men also ride in search of a woman, but their motives couldn’t be more different: Jay rides for love and Silas rides for bounty, and nowhere between the two does one see the traditional cowboy of the movies who’s both a lover and a fighter. Slow West doesn’t concern itself with the old ways of the western: they’re myths and lies, anyways, and the stuff of American movies that don’t get made nowadays.

What Slow West does offer in the means of a traditional western is a spot-on feat of storytelling. This thrilling action drama unfolds slowly and smarty, but moves at an economical space that sharply uses it brief eighty-five minutes to introduce some mean and surly characters with inclinations for violence and a neglect for dental hygiene. Jay and Silas’s travels are marked by instances of storytelling when their paths intersect those of other frontier travellers, mostly lonely men looking for someone to share a smoke, a drink, and a fire. One studious foreigner explains his fascination with the First Nations tribes in the West that are being wiped out by the expansion of civilization; alternatively, a standout scene sees an old man tell Jay a kind of bed-time story in which said civilization is anything but civil. The old man speaks of the American male’s growing mania for violence as the lawlessness of the west expands with the farmlands and housing. The myth is that the gun makes the man, and this arresting interlude in the film—a story within the story—speaks of the futility of self-serving myths in which men and empires are made by violence.

Cut to the end of Slow West in which Maclean explodes this notion with a spectacular and furious gun battle that sees little valour or heroism. The parties of Slow West converge for this duel in the sun, and deaths come fast and furiously with even the most important or familiar of characters getting a cap in the ass from folks who should know better but shoot first given the circumstances. Slow West is violent and gritty, and, in the end, Maclean gives each victim his or her own shot in a montage that chronicles an impressive body count for an eighty-five minute film.

Slow West also challenges the ideology of the West as both the leading cowboys take unsuspecting turns in this climactic gunfight. One finds honour and the other takes off his boots (literally) in a bold, tragic rejection of the violence that always seems to be a means to an end. Smit-McPhee is compelling as the idealistic young Jay, while Fassbender is quietly menacing as the tough chameleon-like Silas. These strong performances lead the film with their silent power as Slow West uses a cowboy’s sparsity for dialogue. The film nevertheless feels a kin to the westerns of the Coen Brothers with its sturdy characters, explosive violence, and wicked sense of humour. One particularly funny visual pours salt on the wound of one poor westerner, and the sight gag is black humour at its finest.

The star shooter of the film, however, is cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who previously shot Pitch Black Heist with Maclean and Fassbender, as well as features like Philomena and Wuthering Heights). Sunlight was made to be shot as gorgeously as it looks here, and Slow West sits comfortably with a fine canon of films like Tree of Life, 127 Hours, and other films in which the sun looks even better onscreen than it does in the sky. On the other hand, Maclean and Ryan never mythologize the violent West with the attractive sunlight; rather, Slow West looks like an elegy and a setting sun: it’s beautiful and bloody, stark and violent.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Slow West is now playing in limited release.
It screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair on July 6 and 7, and in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox.