Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
Slow West is the biggest little movie set in the Old West we’ve seen in a long time. In his very first full-length feature, writer/director John Maclean realizes something about moviemaking that many aspiring or even established filmmakers do not: you don’t need a three-hour movie to tell a 90-minute story. He accomplishes this by capturing the sprawl of the Wild West without lingering for too long on one of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous shots (New Zealand stands in for America yet again). While the story is admittedly a bit of a slow crawl through its dangerous frontier, the film mostly pays off by the time its closing credits roll. It’s just too bad the filmmaker didn’t have enough trust in the audience to avoid unnecessary use of flashback and narration, adding brushstrokes to an otherwise fully realized painting.
Our travels begin with young Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) just before he falls asleep somewhere outdoors in the late 1800s. He pretends to fire his gun at the sky above him, creating a constellation as soon as the imaginary bullets hit the stars he’s aiming for. It’s a beautiful beginning and insight into imaginative follies that naïve young men find themselves getting into. Before closing his eyes, he brings forth a memory of Rose, the young woman he knew from back home in Scotland, who he is desperately trying to reach out west in America.
The next morning, an outlaw stumbles across Jay’s path in a most entertaining introduction and aids the unprepared boy in his quest to find Rose. The outlaw’s name is Silas, and Michael Fassbender (who also executive produces) is never less than magnetic in the role. He’s condescending towards Jay early on in their journey, as he belittles the boy’s poetic memories of Rose by joking that he’s yet to sleep with her. His coldness is felt during a scene in which he makes the decision to leave recently orphaned children behind after a violent encounter. Despite all of this, he remains likeable because he makes the hard decisions needed to survive that not everyone can make. Fassbender sells the character so well he’s missed whenever he’s off-screen, no matter how short a time that ends up being by tale’s end.
It’s in the telling of Slow West that the story begins to lose its grip. Silas’ narration unfortunately telegraphs much of what follows, when all that is needed is for us to follow Jay and Silas on their journey as it happens. A flashback that shows just why Rose and her father have fled to America destroys any potential mystery that could have been discovered near the film’s conclusion. Fortunately, every other facet of the film’s production nearly makes up for these storytelling whiffs. Shots of the aforementioned bullet-created constellation and one of ants crawling in-and-out of a gun barrel best represent Slow West’s visual strengths, and while the supporting cast is relatively unknown, its lead villain is played by a character actor on the rise.
Ben Mendelson’s Payne is everything Silas would have become had the latter not ditched the former’s gang years earlier. Mendelson excels at playing various ne’er-do-wells, including and not limited to a drugged-out criminal in Killing Them Softly, Bane’s ignorant underling in The Dark Knight Rises, and the head-prisoner-in-charge of last year’s Starred Up. However, as Payne, Mendelson really gets to chew up scenery; his giant fur coat a fair representation of his character’s ego (according to Maclean, the wardrobe choice was inspired by a villain from Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller).
Another strength found in Slow West is its sense of humor both light and dark which separates it from many others in its genre. Jay tries on a new suit only to discover a bullet hole near where the previous owner’s heart would be. A bloodied victim near the end accidentally gets salt poured on his wounds twice. After a flood, Jay shows Silas a clever way to dry their soaked clothes that not only makes him laugh, but manages to impress him in the process. It’s these moments of brevity that brighten up Slow West’s plot, successfully keeping it from becoming the “serious western” Maclean wants to steer clear of.
At a Sundance screening, the director explained that his decision to shoot the film in 1:66 (remember square televisions before widescreens took over?) was both attributed to his appreciation of the format and that the western had been shot in widescreen a countless number of times before. The condensed format doesn’t prevent Maclean from beautifully framing a shot, whether it be the countryside our two leads travel across or a still shot of an assassin, a scarecrow, and an intended victim. The film’s final shootout treats us to the bad guys popping out of a wheat field from several different places.
While his work behind the camera best highlights Maclean’s talents, his flaws are found in his plot sequencing. Those aforementioned hiccups don’t send Slow West to the movie equivalent of a glue factory, but they do prevent the movie from reaching its full potential. Hopefully the director’s ability to capture a strong shot will be met with a strong, confident narrative before his next picture. As it stands, Slow West is a beautiful-looking film highlighted by its performances, with just the right amount of humor to make up for the flaws in its story structure.
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