John Maclean’s feature debut, Slow West, is an ambitious one. It is a pastiche of the classic American westerns – a celebration of the genre – and comparisons and parallels to master directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and even Terrence Malick are just and well-deserved.
It is, however, equally it’s own entity. Both in terms of style and structure, Slow West manages to separate itself from the crowd. The bleak and dark British humor you can trace back to Maclean’s short film, Pitch Black Heist, is also present here. It’s morbidly funny at times, beautiful to look at, and overall well-directed, but nonetheless, the movie struggles and eventually falls somewhat short of its own ambition.
Director: John Maclean
Release Date: May 15, 2015
In its short runtime (just 85 minutes), Slow West introduces us to the odd couple, Jay (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender), who wander through the 19th Century frontier to a reach Jay’s lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay and Rose were born and raised in Scotland, and where Jay sees a love interest, Rose sees the younger brother she never had. For reasons unknown, Rose and her father (Game of Thrones‘ Rory McCann) emigrated to the outskirts of Colorado. They live in a small house in the midst of a vast field of corn and grass, like a picturesque postcard of colorful and untouched nature.
Their home is an idyllic one, representing calmness and solitude, and where the only disturbance seems to be a friendly native that once in awhile shows up to partake in their freshly made coffee. It represents the destination of Jay and Silas’ journey across the treacherous lands, and it is an enviable one. However, danger lies between them in more ways than one, as a small group of bounty hunters are following their tracks, lead by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
This concept of beauty and calmness is recreated and reinforced by the cinematography of Robbie Ryan. He manages to use the New Zealand woodlands to capture a lost age on film, and every frame is composed with care and dedication. His magnum opus is a late action scene, where he singlehandedly strengthens the entire movie with his observant lens. As gunmen appear and disappear in a low cornfield – like a bloody game of Whack-A-Mole – the stationary composition makes for a fantastically hilarious scene, and one would have been dead on arrival in the hands of a lesser cinematographer.
As the film rushes by – and it does – our two compadres cross paths with a handful of fun and interesting characters, from a Swedish family to a mysterious, lone researcher and, of course, a run-in or two with the bounty hunters. They are all caricatures of the Western genre. Silas is the archetypical lone wanderer who cares little – and says even less – but may find redemption through an unlikely friendship. Jay is the innocent and pure, who follows his heart and still believes there is love in a world where a single coin could have you killed. The bounty hunters are… bounty hunters, but Ben Mendelsohn almost steals the show as Payne. Although he only makes a few appearances, the man in the comically large fur coat makes plenty of it with a love for absinthe and drunken gibberish.
Although the dialogue is fairly scarce, Slow West seems intent on saying something with it. Mendelsohn’s Payne is a fair example (so is Fassbender’s Silas), but most intriguing is the lone researcher. I hesitate to quote him, as I always support the idea of seeing a movie as blind as possible, but his short appearance is mysterious in more ways than one. The best way I can describe him is with a parallel to the video game, Red Dead Redemption, where you can meet a man dressed all in black, who appears and disappears as he pleases – always with a thought-provoking word for you. What it all means, if anything at all, is up for you to decide. In any case, this mysterious researcher in Slow West lingers in my mind still.
And thus we’ve come to the movies biggest draw: its comedy. Slow West is absolutely hilarious at times. It is bleak and black, like something pulled straight from a Coen brothers movie or a less-polished Tarantino gag. At one point, Jay and Silas comes across a skeleton crushed by a tree, with an ax in its hand. They make dispassionate comments about Darwinism and move on. In the final action sequence, the entire crew must have had a field day a work as it may be the funniest explosive climax to a Western movie since Django Unchained.
However, the comedy isn’t omnipresent and disappears completely in certain scenes, leaving us with a movie lost between two states.This is not to say I dislike cross-genre movies, au contraire, I can really love them, but to attain my love, it has to function as a whole. Whenever a movie can’t function like this – caught between two genres – the end result is one which struggles to find its own identity. A movie can be as beautifully shot, directed or acted as it wants to, but without its own identity – its own soul – it will never be remembered for long.
Slow West is without a doubt a fun and, above all, efficient ride. Too many movies overstay their welcome, and there’s something to be said for a filmmaker who respects the audience’s time. Maclean proves this with Slow West.