Written and directed by John Maclean (his first feature length film) this 2015 movie stars Michael Fassbender and Jodi Smit-McPhee and the film can be best described as a whimsical western. Slow West has been somewhat oddly listed as an action thriller and western on IMDb. This over two hour long blackly comic romance story definitely does not fall into action thriller territory, despite its sizable body count.
Smit-McPhee is Jay the 16 year-old son of Lady Cavendish who follows the love of his young life from Scotland to America. Fassbender is Irishman Silas Selleck, bounty hunter and brute (according to Jay), who shows up and helps Jay travel across the country, for a fee of $100. Young Cavendish is following the trail of Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) and her father John (played by Rory McCann who was Michael “Yarp” Armstrong in Hot Fuzz) who inadvertently killed Jay’s uncle back in Scotland.
There is a $2000 bounty on their heads dead or alive. This is why Silas has hooked up with Jay, he is a bounty hunter and Selleck plans to follow Cavendish to his lady love and collect the reward. Along the way, Jay sees a Native American village that is burnt to the ground, and a lot of death.
While Slow West can be best described as whimsy on horseback, this film is not at all an average “oater.” It is odd, quirky, insightful, tongue-in-cheek and, in places, laugh out loud funny. Maclean has given us a look, in some ways, at how the west really was. Unlike most standard cowboy movies where everyone either has Californian accents, or midwest (think John Wayne or Hank Fonda) the director gives us an Irishman, a Scot, an Englishman posing as a minister, a moralizing thieving German, two would-be Swedish robbers and a group of what look to be inbred hillbillies, a’la Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch railroad posse.
Perhaps the oddest nationality to show up in the middle of the American West are a trio of Congolese singers. Each man appears to have some sort of issue with mobility. One is on an old-fashioned wheelchair, another has a crutch and the last is seated on the ground. This surreal scene takes place in the middle of the prairie and the three men are singing as Silas and Jay ride past.
Cavendish stops to listen. “Did you like our music,” the man with the crutch asks. “Yes,” replies Jay. “It was a song of love,” replies crutch-man. “Aw, love is universal, like death,” says Jay before riding off. This odd little exchange (which feels a little Terry Gilliam-ish) also seems to foreshadow future events.
There is quite a lot of that in this film. A bullet-hole in a suit, a playful poking in the chest with an index-finger gun barrel in a game…Speaking of games, in a flashback to Scotland, Jay and Rose are playing a game called “A 1000 Ways to Die.” “Pick yours,” calls Rose and Jay chooses Bow and Arrow, another foreshadowing of a future event in the American West.
While the film has all the trappings of the old west, it also features things that feel more like a satirical pastiche of the genre. The music that accompanies the film feels like something one would hear in a French film. The style of the clothes looks almost “Sergio Leone” in origin and all the handguns, with the exception of the Swedish woman’s derringer are long barreled and huge.
These same “hand cannons” are also very, very loud when they go off.
There are some “messages” in the film. The thieving German “author” that Cavendish meets, after running away from the “brute” asks Jay of his journey. The young man tells of the burnt Native American village and the German reacts eloquently:
“A race extinct, their culture banished, their places renamed. Only then will they be viewed with selective nostalgia. Mythologized and romanticized in the safe guise of art…and literature.”
– Werner (Andrew Robertt)
After this grand expression, the two men break bread and when Jays wakes in the morning his host has stolen everything and left. On the ground is an egg on a piece of paper with an arrow drawn on it and the word “West.”
The film is slow but musically so. It has a pace of a slow waltz and at no time is the tale boring. Eclectic and wandering the film includes a funny tale, from the hillbilly bounty hunters, of a hand written wanted poster and a dead bear.
This UK/New Zealand film looks brilliant and entertains almost effortlessly. There may be a big body count (17) but the violence is not overly gory and in at least one instance, is very amusing. Newcomer Caren Pistorius is brilliant as the object of Jodi Smit-McPhee’s character’s affection.
Michael Fassbender looks like a young Burt Lancaster in this film, all square-jawed stubble, and one keeps expecting to hear Lancaster’s voice when the actor speaks. If ever there is a biopic on Lancaster Fassbender should play the man.
The only complaint about the film concerns the accents or lack of them. Cavendish may not sound overly Scottish, but being of the “gentry” he would have been well educated and elocution lessons would have been a matter of course. Fassbender only sounds Irish when he is drunk. Only the Swedish couple and the German have accents that “fit.”
This film is funny, tragic and odd. It is also fun. There are a number of things that are amusing, Rose’s inability to get the butter to set is one. The tiny square of wheat, or rye, outside the cabin during the climatic fight scene another.
*Sidenote* It would be interesting to see if Selleck’s name was chosen because of Tom Selleck’s many Louis L’Amour western roles.
Fans of whimsical and clever films will enjoy and appreciate this splendid looking and entertaining movie. Digitally shot, Slow West looks spectacularly crisp and clear. This is a 5 out of 5 stars film for clever originality and a cracking musical score. The odd “buddy” film should not be missed.