Movie Review: Slow West

Slow West
Directed by: John Maclean.
Written by: John Maclean.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jay Cavendish), Michael Fassbender (Silas Selleck), Ben Mendelsohn (Payne), Caren Pistorius (Rose Ross), Andrew Robertt (Werner), Rory McCann (John Ross), Kalani Queypo (Kotori).

It doesn’t surprise me that Slow West is writer/director John Maclean’s first film. It feels like a first film – albeit, the first film of a talented writer/director who probably has a bright future ahead of him. The film calls to mind filmmakers like the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch among many others – it’s a Western full of violence and comedic moments, but with a quiet tone. Like the Westerns of the Coens and Jarmusch – and many others over the years – Maclean’s want to de-mystify the West – paint it as a violent, confusing place, not the place of heroes and “real men” of the classical Western, but a worse place. That may not be an overly original vision – but it works here, as it has in the past.

The film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay – a young Scotsman who has come to America in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), a young woman he’s in love with, who had to flee their native land along with her father because they became wanted criminals, which may or may be Jay’s fault. To Jay, Rose is perfection personified, but the movie never mistakes her for that. It shows us, fairly early, that Rose and her father went from being wanted in Scotland, to being wanted in America as well, and there’s no evidence to suggest she feels remotely like Jay does towards her. He never shuts up about Rose – she never mentions Jay. Jay is spotted early on by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) – a hardened cowboy, with a violent past, who immediately knows Jay will never make if he doesn’t help him – so he does just that. Not out of the kindness of his heart mind – he charges Jay a lot to act as his guide, and fully plans on collecting the reward on Rose and her daddy when they find them (something he doesn’t tell Jay). Like many a Western hero before him, Silas has a former gang – this one led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who also want to collect that money, and tag along right behind.

Slow West is an apt title for the movie – it certainly doesn’t move fast. It’s more interested in the journey across the West than the destination as well. The film takes some odd detours – singing Africans make an appearance, an odd German named Werner, violent episodes. The three main performances – by Smit-McPhee, Fassbender and Mendelsohn – pretty much play things straight – they would be at home in a 1950s Delmer Daves –Western, which works for the odd tone of the movie, which Maclean establishes through his dialogue, and serio-comic nature of the film, that gives way to violence. The climax of the movie seems to me like Maclean acknowledging he has no other way to end the film, so he may as well give audiences the type of shootout they expect from a Western – but even still winking at the audience during it (no more so than in moment where someone quite literally gets salt in their wound).

Maclean has learned from the best – and it shows in Slow West. The Coen’s True Grit and Jarmusch’s Dead Man are obvious inspirations – but there are elements of many other directors sprinkled throughout the film. Many first time filmmakers make films that resemble that of their idols, before they find their own, distinct voice. Slow West feels like that type of film – not a great film, but an early film of a great director. Let’s hope I’m right.

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