Like all great westerns, Slow West ends with a bloody gunfight. Once the dust has settled, the camera cuts to each of the dead bodies and lingers on them for a moment. One of the especially unlucky departed has their trousers pulled down and buttocks exposed, from being dragged across the floor during battle. You want to chuckle but probably shouldn’t, even though it’s quite clearly played for laughs – and herein lies my main problem with the film that, whilst weirdly wonderful, is tonally confused.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Scottish gentleman, Jay Cavendish – with, it must be said, an impressive accent – who travels to America in search for the love of his life, recently forced to flee Scotland because of him. As he travels west, coming into contact with murderous Native Americans and outlaws alike, he attracts the attention of the mysterious Silas, a mysterious gunslinger who is willing to help Jay, providing the price is right.
Written and directed by John Maclean – former keyboard player in The Beta Band – his feature length debut is surreal and strange, and not in an entirely good way. A melting pot of mood, it’s altogether romantic, tragic, funny, and violent, which makes Slow West a difficult film to settle into.
One moment you’ll be listening intently to Cavendish’s poetic musings about life and love, as he stares up at the crisp starlit sky. The next moment you’ll be left in shock as a shootout at a trading post ends with a genuinely heartbreaking reveal. You’ll then find yourself laughing at the chemistry between the sheepish Cavendish and craggy Silas, only a brief time later.
Your emotions are pulled in so many different directions, at such a relentless pace, that you can’t help but feel jolted out of the story. The various conflicting moods of the film – as well as an abundant of influences from filmmakers that range from John Ford to the Coen Brothers – made me too conscious that I was watching a movie, when I would have liked to have had a bit more investment in the characters and plot.
There’s still plenty to like about Slow West though – not least the performances. Michael Fassbender is effortlessley cool as the loveable rogue Silas, whilst Kodi Smit-McPhee is endearing as the hopeless romantic Cavendish. They’re supported by the superb Ben Mendelsohn, who continues to create terrifying and memorable performances, despite being on screen for little time.
Another star of the film is the beautiful New Zealand, whose landscapes masquerade as those from the old west. The stunning wide vistas certainly give Slow West the ‘traditional’ look of a western, yet the film feels equally as contemporary. It’s as if, much like Wes Anderson, Maclean has a fondness for the old, but an irresistible need to stamp it with a fresh and pulpy new look.
It’s the battle between the new and old, the contemporary and traditional, that makes Slow West both a success and a failure. It feels original and unique when compared to other westerns, but there’s so much going on within the film – in terms of tone, not narrative – that you do begin to crave the usual conventions of the genre.
I admire John Maclean for at least trying to do something different with Slow West, but I wish I’d enjoyed it more than I actually did. I get the sense however, that over time and multiple watches, I may grow to like it a lot more – especially once I’ve wrapped my head around it.
Image credit to http://www.flickeringmyth.com