A surprising mix of comedy, western, and fairy tale, this excellent first film is all about the details.
Immediately after watching John Maclean’s feature film debut, Slow West, I had a nagging feeling that his film style reminded me of another director. I couldn’t nail down his exact style, which is bright but gruesome, gritty but aesthetically pleasing, serious but absolutely hilarious. It didn’t hit me until after some serious thought who the best director to compare him to is. I hesitate to say it, given the high profile comparison, but Maclean has an approach that feels very similar to Wes Anderson. They both take characters that could be easy to simply laugh at, but whose heartfelt conviction is too winning to deny. They both pay close attention to the details of art direction. Heck, there is even a random moment of French-speaking, poetic love-pondering among strangers—very Anderson-esque. Both Anderson and Maclean have a level of self-awareness that adds an intriguing edge and humor. In the case of Slow West, this self-awareness lifts the film up beyond what, on the surface, could have been a run of the mill western with off-beat characters. Instead, what Maclean presents is a campfire tale just bizarre enough to believe and beautiful enough to entrance.
Young, Scottish, and totally out of his element, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is making his way across turn of the century wild Colorado, heading west in pursuit of his love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). A wonder that he’s survived as long as he has, Jay happens upon Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) as Silas holds up a Native-killing ex-soldier in the woods. Silas convinces Jay he’ll never make it to his true love alone and offers to take him for a fee. Jay, shaken by this recent encounter, sees his logic and agrees. They take off together, Jay trying to get to know his new trail partner, Silas making it clear he’s a loner.
Their first stop, at a tiny supply depot, turns unexpectedly violent when a poor immigrant family attempts to hold the general store up to steal money. Things escalate, in this brilliantly directed scene, to a bloody end. But this is life in the Wild West, death is all too common. Jay leaves the situation shaken, but stronger. Silas’s obvious lack of conscience, however, troubles Jay. Jay attempts to go out on his own, running into a kindly German writing a book on the diminishing Native American culture and population. “Theft,” he claims. Jay’s faith in the goodness of people seems momentarily renewed. Until he wakes up alone on the ground, all of his things stolen. Not the only example of humorous irony in Slow West. It’s used in abundance throughout, always with a subtle cleverness that makes for unexpected laughs at unassuming moments.
Unbeknownst to Jay, Rose and her father John (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann aka The Hound) have a price on their heads, and Silas is actually a bounty hunter. Jay is leading Silas right to her. He isn’t the only outlaw interested in the high reward, however. As the paths of these lawless men cross, more about Silas’s past comes out, and his evolving personal integrity. To Silas, Jay’s undying love, (though it may be misplaced), and virtue are signs of the possibility of decent humanity in the West.
As the various bounty hunters descend upon Rose and her father—one a priestly-looking silent type with a sniper-looking rifle, the other Silas’s old mentor, the fur-coated Payne (Ben Mendelsohn)—it becomes an all out shoot out between the competing parties, as Jay rushes to defend his love.
The film is maybe less fairy tale and more cautionary tale, but the storytelling presented in the film is excellent. Not to mention peppered with Tarantino-quality fighting and deaths. But where Tarantino makes us laugh as reaction to his choreographed gore, Maclean’s humor is a bit higher brow. And the entire thing is infused with an honest and hefty measure of heart. It’s a difficult balance of emotions, and masterfully executed.
Fassbender, while never disappointing when presenting as cold and curt, turns out to have some decent comedic timing. Smit-McPhee takes the cake. His baby-face certainly makes his naive boy-in-love believable, but he adds a wise-beyond-his-years soulfulness that takes Jay beyond pathetic and upward to sweet and charming. The one most likely to be buzzed about after the film releases is newcomer Caren Pistorius as Rose, who holds very little screen-time but owns it when she has it.
Everyone’s on their A-game, including Jed Kurzel and his score (whose abilities to enhance ho-hum genre music we’ve most recently enjoyed in The Babadook). Slow West is the perfect example of a first time filmmaker who knows what he wants and how to invoke talent, making for a visionary and excellently finessed film. With a literal body count at the end, Maclean ties all his loose ends in the satisfying way of most parables. But, like he does throughout his film, what makes it ultimately so entertaining is how much the film goes against expectations, and for a Western—a genre filled with expectation—that’s no small feat.
A version of this review first appeared as part of our Tribeca 2015 coverage.