John Maclean’s Slow West is just as its title describes. The pace of the film, coupled with the wide expanses of the Wild West in the barren, cold-hearted wilderness of the 19th century, provides this film its odd atmosphere that feels less like the majority of modern westerns and more like something the Coen Brothers might come out with. But this comparison would be overvaluing it – it is more like a Coen film that the brothers decided to ditch last minute, or decided never to take off the script. Not to say that the film isn’t good. It is a mess, but in the chaos, some truly exceptional moments can be found.
There is a certain randomness that comes with the writer’s decision to punctuate the unravelling of his story with a few jarring and confusing additions – take not of the brief appearance of Werner, a European intellectual type who the film’s hero, Jay, meets in the desert and who soon after vanishes, leaving Jay with nothing but an egg and a piece of paper with an arrow and the word “west” on it. Or the group of black men sitting in a circle on the floor playing music and their brief and brilliant interaction with Jay… it is not just the fact that this short intermission occurs that is noteworthy – the effect of Jay’s fascination and Silas’s utter indifference is hilarious.
Read at Unsung Films: Frank.
Of course, as almost always, Michael Fassbender, who plays Silas the outlaw, injects the film with character, and compliments the slightly weaker character of Jay (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) who moves through the film looking lost and confused. It is the contrast between Scottish Jay, whose presence in the West is disjointed and comical, and Silas, whose very existence merges with the sand and the dust of the desert, that pushes this film towards its messy end.
The story is unique; a young Scottish man from a wealthy family abandons his home in Scotland in search of Rose, the supposed love of his life. It is Silas who takes Jay under his wing (with ulterior motives) and leads him towards his objective. As both men move through the Wild West, accompanied by stunning landscapes and vast open skies, they develop a sort of bond. Forced into difficult situations together, they can’t help but grow fond of each other. But the filmmaker makes use of the occasional flashback which, to my mind, reveals only the futility of Jay’s mission. His relationship with Rose is not altogether one-sided, but is not the love story he has convinced himself it is. Her love, if there is any, is a familial kind of love, which turns Jay’s story somewhat tragic.
The mention of tragedy in Slow West is necessary, because while this film remains a comedy throughout, there are a few heart-wrenching moments, included (most likely) to emphasise the harsh and terrible reality of life at that time in Western America. But these moments come and go, merge neatly in a story that, while not feeling altogether complete, succeeds to a great extent at what it tries to be.
Watch the trailer for Slow West here: