Slow West is a smart synthesis of the mournful revisionist Western and the lightly appealing oater. In other words, it has a somber recognition of the Wild West’s brutish, senseless violence and pernicious prejudices, and yet retains the lean, bright pleasures of a simpler entertainment. This mixture has been attempted a few times recently – the Coens’ brilliant True Grit and Verbinski’s underrated The Lone Ranger, for two fresh examples. But we’re not exactly swimming in high quality (or any) Westerns these days, and writer-director John Maclean, a musician making his feature filmmaking debut, gives us a satisfying one. He stakes out a nice leisurely pace, trotting slowly westward towards an inevitable shootout, meeting a batch of eccentric characters and dryly evocative detail along the way.
We meet a pale youth (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling alone through Colorado territory in the late 19th century, searching for his love (Caren Pistorius), a young woman who left their home country to start a new life in America. The young man runs into a wandering stranger (Michael Fassbender), a far more capable cowboy who luckily agrees to ride along and help him to his destination. They fall into a comfortable relationship, suspicious but with easy rapport. The boy explains, “My girl and her father fled from Scotland.” “Take a hint, kid,” is the older man’s terse reply. It’s a nice crisp quip, but dark undertones creep into their dynamic as we soon learn what the boy doesn’t. The girl and her father are wanted dead or alive, and the helpful stranger is a bounty hunter being led to his prey.
A sure-footed and confident film, narrative and character are pared down to bare essentials. We learn a little about these two men, but not much. We’re simply along for the ride, a short, melancholy little Western with clear blue skies and blindingly bright sun, moving towards certain tragic ending for someone. Indeed, when the violence comes it’s swift and scary, sorrowful with only the faintest glimmer of hope. (There’s even literal salt poured in the wound.) But the journey there is one of constant danger. There are robbers, rival bounty hunters, con men, and Natives. Death hangs heavy over the proceedings, if only for its constant presence in the minds of anyone heading their way. What’s west? “Dreams and toil,” one man says. Kids are orphaned. A campsite floods. A skeleton lies crushed underneath a fallen tree. A German writer (Andrew Robertt) laments Native Americans’ deaths. “One day…this will be a long time ago,” he says.
Fassbender and Smit-McPhee develop a close relationship, seemingly forged out of nothing more than a need for human connection, two lonely travelers taking some comfort in knowing that at least they’re not as bad as others they meet along their slow journey. There’s a sniveling bounty hunter on their trail (played with reliably great villainy by Ben Mendelsohn), eager to pull up next to the campfire and share some absinthe and a cigar, but just as likely to hang back on the edge of the horizon. He’s sizing them up, ready to pounce once the target is in sight. The foreseeable conflict between our two leads once they reach their destination stretches out as distant suspense – disjunction between the men emphasized by split diopter effects – in favor of the toils and dangers both man and nature present along the way.
Maclean, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s steady camera, finds gorgeous natural sights – New Zealand standing in quite nicely for the American west – as our characters’ paths converge on the climactic endpoint. It’s a contemplative little picture, and yet happy to provide genre pleasures, galloping horses, gun-loading procedures, wanted signs, the welcome sight of a lone building in the center of a vast stretch of natural beauty, and the sudden terror as shots ring out. It’s all as comforting as it is foreboding, as striking as it is familiar. Maclean’s terse script contains lines like woodcarvings out of thick pulp, and draws conclusions ripe and bloody, predictable and sad. We may not get a lot of Westerns these days, but it’s always nice to see another good one.