Slow West. 2015
Directed by John Maclean
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann, and Caren Pistorius
A young Scottish man travels across America in pursuit of the woman he loves, attracting the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as a guide.
Slow West is a methodically paced Western that is tonally butting heads. Normally, that results in a disjointed mess of a movie unsure of what it wants to be, but here it is first-time director John Maclean’s offbeat style that makes for a memorable viewing experience.
For some perspective, Slow West is a very downer and melancholy take on the Western genre, juxtaposed with bursts of sharp humor that work even when in any other movie they probably wouldn’t. This cynical thematic vibe is also contrasted by the naïve hopefulness of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 16-year-old Scotland native traversing across the Western frontier to reunite with the woman he loves. There are also welcome touches of Romeo and Juliet, as the two come from different classes of wealth.
Enter Silas (Michael Fassbender) who comes across this in over his head teenager and offers some good old outlaw bodyguard protection in exchange for some cash. Traveling together they meet many eccentric and quirky characters designed to better illustrate this painting of Maclean’s Wild West. Even more impressive is that while some of these characters are unimportant to the story, these collection of scenes often leave a haunting impression of an age where survival skills were a necessity, not an option. Not all of these short stories work however, as some either feel superfluous or lack in excitement compared to the more pressing matter at hand, which is a sort of twisted coming-of-age story about a lovesick teenager learning to become the man society dictates he must be to reach his girlfriend.
Without spoilers, the narrative truly picks up once the duo comes across a gang of bounty hunters, serving up some bittersweet twists and turns that ultimately climax with an impressively choreographed shootout that demands you hold in your breath and fear the worst. Slow West may be high on gorgeous scenery and dialogue and low on action, but that is what accentuates the tension when bullets start flying in every direction. Those with patience will be rewarded by witnessing an adrenaline fueled ending where all the moving parts come together to form a whole that works.
The cinematography by Robbie Ryan is absolutely stunning and undoubtedly deserving of award recognition. One of the first things viewers will pick up are the beautiful contrasts between green pastures and a bright blue sky, including extremely darkly lit nighttime scenes with a slight tint of blue. Truthfully, the scenes into the late hours of the night might have gone overboard with the darkness as sometimes it’s a bit tough to figure out what characters are doing, but it overall makes for a nice visual aesthetic.
The sound design and original soundtrack also elevate the atmosphere, often featuring softer themes to complement the bleakness of humankind and the no holds barred attitude of the era. Bullets blasting out of the chamber of their guns all sound authentic to the time period as they pierce flesh and penetrate wooden houses. Director John Maclean clearly makes a lot of smart decisions throughout Slow West, but perhaps one of the smartest was leaving the film’s climactic shootout free of music, allowing viewers to get lost in the masterful tension created by the finale.
What propels Slow West to the echelon of modern classics however, is again, its often harrowing period piece outlook that is inhabited by an easily likable lead full of optimism and romanticism; it’s impossible not to root for his plight, especially amidst the tension and turmoil of the setting. There’s danger around every corner, lessons about love to be learned, bloody shootouts, a sweet fur coat worn by a heartless bounty hunter, and a grim montage of still shots for everyone that meets their demise. It also has a playful sense of humor that would make the Coen brothers proud. Finally, in an age where many films feel overstuffed and unnecessarily lengthy, Slow West accomplishes every goal within a swift running time of 84 minutes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook