Set at the end of the 19th century, Slow West follows Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 17-year-old Scottish aristocrat who travels to American West to look for his former lover. Faced with the brutal frontier environment, he soon teams up with a rough and mysterious traveler named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who soon discovers that Jay’s old flame has a price on her head. Together, they make their way through the wilderness, while trying to stay one step ahead of the bounty hunters.
“In a short time, this will be a long time ago,” one traveller tells another in the middle of Slow West, a revisionist Western as romantic as it is wry and stark. The speaker is Werner (Andrew Robertt), a German anthropologist who appears to young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as a bastion of civilisation on a brutal and brutalised American frontier. A Scot from the upper classes, Jay has travelled to the new world in search of what he believes to be a lost love.
It is the working class Rose (Caren Pistorius), older and otherwise uninterested, who captured the fey, poetry-quoting Jay’s heart, and as a result twice Jay brings trouble to her door. The first time, in Scotland, ends in murder, and Rose’s exile with her father (Rory McCann) from their home. The second time, deep in the American West, Jay’s delusions cost Rose – and himself – even more dearly.
Premiering at Sundance as part of the World Dramatic Competition, Slow West is the feature directing debut of musician John Maclean, who fits a great deal of story and style within the film’s spare, 84-minute frame. Even better, the film presents a clear-eyed, witty perspective on the deeply-grooved clichés of its chosen genre. Like the recent Tommy Lee Jones film The Homesman, Slow West casts a deliberate, bitter eye on the inhumanity that flourished over the “settling” of the western United States. Despite being there to chronicle the genocide of America’s native people, even our good German, Jay soon learns, is not immune to the survivalist desperation that pervades and indeed seems produced by the landscape.
Jay meets Werner having escaped from the care of his less cultured but more honourable chaperone, Silas, played with just the right amount of relish by Michael Fassbender. The two meet in the wake of Jay’s encounter with a pack of thugs, and a deal is reluctantly struck: for a price, Silas will protect Jay for the remainder of Jay’s journey to Rose’s door. Pale and built like a sprig of milkweed, Jay’s western adventure is not quite living up to his guidebook, Ho! For the West. Rugged and built like a spring coil, the Irish Silas has seen all he cares to of the American dream. Unbeknownst to Jay, a large bounty has followed Rose and her father across the ocean, and Silas intends to follow it, with Jay’s help, right to the bank.
It’s a quick, neat set-up, of the kind ultimately powered by detail, nuance, and character. Fassbender and later Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the leader of a gang of which Silas is an alumn, vamp it up in outlaw drag. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many cigars chawed quite so well; Mendelsohn especially serves degenerate realness in a huge, royal cloak of matted fur and animal skin. Silas is that weary, Cooper-esque creature who knows, sees, and has done it all, but has retained enough of his humanity to feel fear, and regret. After one of the violent interludes that make up Slow West’s epic tale (Fassbender’s narration opens with “Once upon a time…”), the camera shows us what Jay cannot see: Silas, back on his horse, gaze set forward; though one hand kneads rhythmically into his thigh.
Silas feels pity for Jay, presumably because the kid embodies some former version of himself, then respect, then admiration. But Maclean, who also wrote the script, makes Jay less of a solemn victim than he could have; if Jay is a true spirit, as Silas claims, he is also very much the fool, right up to a hilariously risky sight gag at the end of the film. The script is eloquent to the point of parody; the men speak in differing genres of epigram – lyric and tough guy. Like Jed Kurzel’s bright, melodic score, somehow, it works. Shot in New Zealand by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Slow West is defined by a kind of loving ambivalence – about its hero, its genre, and perhaps most of all about a landscape so harsh and so beautiful it almost makes a man hope to die.