Movie Review: Slow West
If you blinked, you may have missed Slow West at your local cinema. If you go by Box Office figures, you wouldn’t even know that it was released at all! Luckily for fans of the Video On Demand market (myself included,) this quirky little western is already available for streaming directly from Amazon. Unluckily for fans of the Western genre (myself included,) this quirky little film just barely scratches my itch when it comes to cowpokes and shoot-outs. Depending on your tolerance for idie indulgences, you may find Slow West to be barely better than no west at all.
Slow West (2015)
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of minor Scottish nobility on a mission to find his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has escaped into the American West with her father in order to avoid legal trouble back home on the isles. Decked out in city-slicker duds, loaded down with teapots and penny-dreadful guides to the frontier, and armed with a six-shooter he doesn’t know how to use, Jay is prime pickings for any bandit looking for an easy pay day. His luck appears to turn when he falls in with Silas (Michael Fassbender,) an experienced gunman who agrees to take him west for a fee. When other guns-for-hire start tracking the pair, we learn that Silas may have other motives for helping, and that Jay is in deeper cow-chips than he can possibly know.
First time director John MacClean strays from the main street of classic westerns, but ends up on well-worn side-paths instead of blazing new trails. He attempts to breath some originality back into many of the tried-and-true tropes of the genre by using odd characters and sudden violence, but it never quite feels fresh. In fact, it begins to quickly look as if Slow West is studiously copying other purveyors of quirky westerns like the Coen brothers and (especially) Jim Jarmusch‘s excellent Dead Man. Every scene that MacClean attempts to leave his stamp on manages to seems to feel like a poor man’s version of Jarmusch’s better film.
Hurting the effort is the brevity of the film. At just shy of an hour and a half, this film hardly has enough room to breath, and the characters and story never find their footing. Some flashbacks help to give Jay a personal history, but we never feel that his attachment to Rose rises above stereotypical puppy-dog infatuation. Silas is an unknown quantity, though his interactions with the villainous Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, who is very engaging in the role, but given too little time to develop into a proper antagonist) hint that he has quite a long history of violence and betrayal behind him. The supporting cast is full of memorable characters who never amount to much. A traveling ethnologist, a priestly assassin, a folksy and sinister old soldier, and even a pair of orphaned children all seem like they have so much story to tell, and absolutely no time to tell it in.
The Real Rock Ridge?
Slow West manages the simulacrum of a classic western: the settings are beautiful and seer, the locations feel organic and appropriate, and the film is populated by the requisite desperadoes, indian-fighters and hard-luck fortune-seekers. Each character and setting is given a twist to set them apart from archetypes they represent. On paper, this should add up to an engaging and impressive western. Unfortunately, like Jay’s useless frontier guide-books, the difference between the reality and the description are worlds apart.
This film may hold your interest if you’re a die hard fan of the genre, or of the directors whose style this film approximates. I think the VOD route for Slow West was an adroit decision, as I was happy to spend an evening at home with this brief venture into the territories, but would have been gravely disappointed to have bellied up to a full priced movie ticket. There are merits to the film, which at times is very beautifully shot and well acted, but so much of it feels like a miniature reproduction of better efforts that it is hard to recommend it for anything more than a rental.