It is the 1870s and young Scots teen Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has made up his mind to travel from East to West across the United States in search of his lost love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) who fled across the land with her father John (Rory McCann) to the middle of nowhere after a murder charge that both of them are now wanted for with bounties on their heads, or so it seems. Jay is more hopeful than practical, and as he wanders through a forest in Colorado he hears gunfire up ahead, so is at a loss about what to do; when an Indian runs towards him, pauses, then streaks away through the trees Jay doesn’t know he is about to have a significant encounter…
Slow West was the feature debut of former member of rock group The Beta Band, John Maclean, who had shown an interest in films for some time and finally managed to make his own, one which it must have cheered him to see receiving a warm, if modest, welcome. Taking the form of a road trip into the wilderness, it looked to have been inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, a Western that proved surprisingly influential in how the genre was approached over the decades since its release, though that said it was not so influential that it bred a whole rash of cowboy epics as by this stage the style was very much for the cultists, with only the occasional attempt at appealing to a large audience who were not as interested.
Therefore all the hallmarks of the arthouse Western were here, with its major star doing the production a favour by appearing, its concentration on the visual splendour of the location, its bursts of violence and generally existentialist tone, as if the further into to the country you got, the less the normal rules applied, leaving a sense of making your own destiny rather than any outside forces helping you alone. And if you didn’t have a destiny, you drifted. That star in this instance was Michael Fassbender, an outlaw turned opportunist and bounty hunter called Silas Selleck who deliberately meets up with Jay in the forest, as characters had a habit of tracking other folks down in this film even when there was no apparent way they could have known where they were to such a degree of accuracy.
That was simply something you had to accept, though as Slow West was made in some stunning New Zealand scenery you could just as easily wallow in that for the relatively brief running time, as Maclean demonstrated a real eye for the striking imagery and how to best present it. Concentrating on the plot might not be quite as rewarding, for that was more of a picaresque and a glum one at that, albeit with flashes of absurdist humour, contrasting the beauty of the countryside with the frequent savagery of the people who inhabited it – early on the hunter chasing the Indian calls him a savage, but we can see most of these individuals would be well described by that epithet as well. In fact, the only character who might be described as anywhere near civilised would be Jay.
And the trouble with him is that he’s hopelessly unequipped to deal with the life in the Wild West, with only his blind faith in Rose to keep him going, something that proves foolish in itself when we see in flashbacks that she was happy to treat him as a little brother rather than anyone she would be romantically interested in. Smit-McPhee’s Scottish accent was rather excellent, refreshingly, and he made an interesting pairing with the more capable Fassbender, who essayed a more traditional man of the West role with grim-faced dedication, obviously thoroughly enjoying the chance to be part of a genre he had been a fan of for a while. The events that made up their journey were if anything anecdotal in the main, with bodies piling up along the way when the best way to get ahead in this environment is to pull a gun on somebody else, as nobody considers there may be a better method of succeeding out West. At the end of the movie, maybe it’s no shock to see the ruthless winning out, with a note of hope they may learn compassion. Music by Jed Kurzel.
[There are about a billion featurettes on Lionsgate's DVD, all providing background.]