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Review: Slow West (2015)

Slow West (2015)

Directed by: John MacLean

Premise: Set in 19th Century America, a Scottish immigrant (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the western frontier in an attempt to locate the woman he loves. He recruits a bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) to protect him but the hired gun has ulterior motives.

What Works: Over the past few years the western has made a comeback, mostly in the form of modestly budgeted independent pictures such as Bone Tomahawk and The Homesman. These new westerns have brought a contemporary approach to the material, challenging or refitting some of the conventions of the genre. Slow West is one of the better films in this trend. Compared to its contemporaries, this film hews a little more closely to the traditions of the western genre but finds different ways of presenting them while also adding some new and a strange elements. The western has traditionally been a masculine genre; the movies of John Wayne reinforced a certain idea of what a man should be: strong, decisive, violent, and unemotional but honorable.  The lead characters of Slow West don’t quite fit that mold. The film is led by Jay, a young Scottish immigrant played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Jay is good natured but he is also small, meek, and helpless and he does not have a violent disposition. He is paired with Silas, a bounty hunter played by Michael Fassbender. Silas is the opposite of Jay in almost every way and it’s clear that the younger man will not survive in the western frontier without him. Therein the film has an interesting tension. Jay’s peaceful and civilized attitudes are appealing and make him what we would recognize to be an honorable person but those qualities are also what make him ill-suited to survive in the wilderness of the west. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender make an enjoyable on-screen odd couple. Smit-McPhee plays the naiveté very well and Fassbender is the cynic who is morally compromised but is alternately annoyed and amused by the integrity of the young man in his charge. There is an earnest brotherliness to their relationship and the film finds some humor in their travels together. The pair is tracked by a gang of bounty hunters led by Payne played by Ben Mendelsohn. Payne is a familiar kind of western character—the black hat outlaw with no scruples. But Mendelsohn is menacing in a way that’s unexpected. He a bad guy but he’s also very charming. Slow West was the first directorial effort of filmmaker John MacLean and it is an impressive debut. The film is beautifully shot with terrific use of the western landscape and he stages violence in a way that is exciting but also visceral and frightening.

What Doesn’t: As a western, Slow West adheres to the basics of the genre. It does them quite well and it adds some new elements but on the whole the movie is generally familiar and some of its twists are not too surprising. The weakest point of the story is the romance between the young Scottish immigrant, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and his estranged love played by Caren Pistorius. The movie fills in the exposition through flashbacks and conveys this young man’s infatuation but it isn’t quite enough to sell the passion between them. It’s not even clear if the feeling is mutual between Jay and Rose. She does not get much screen time and Rose remains mostly an object instead of a subject; she is less of a character and more of a MacGuffin. The ending of Slow West is abrupt and a little too tidy. It mostly makes sense but in the denouement the surviving characters make a few big life changes that the movie doesn’t ease into. The story’s finale is just a little too neat especially given the gritty and freewheeling style of the rest of the picture.

DVD extras: Featurette and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: Slow West is a well-made film and a smart take on the western. The movie does not reinvent the genre but it does it very well and it adds some creative flourishes and interesting characters. It will satisfy fans of the western but it will also appeal to those who don’t normally watch movies in this genre.

Episode: #611 (September 11, 2016)