Mark Reviews Movies

Slow West

SLOW WEST

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Maclean

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Caren Pistorious, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann

MPAA Rating: R (for violence and brief language)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 5/15/15 (limited); 5/22/15 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 21, 2015

As they make their way deeper into Colorado Territory, the two travelers happen upon an absurdly apropos sight: a tree lying on top of the skeleton of the man who felled it. It's the nature of the lumberjack to cut down trees, and it's the nature of trees to fall when chopped. Slow West is about this sort of fundamental conflict between the natures of its characters.

We refer to those natures as archetypes. There's the seasoned man of the West who shoots when he must and also when he wants, because he is one of the few left in this land who exists "beyond the law." There's the desperado who would slit a man's throat for money, pride, or because he feels like it. There's the strong-willed lass who discovers she's adept as a pioneer woman.

Then there's the star-gazing lover who is convinced he can track down the girl of his dreams in the middle of nowhere and live happily ever after. The young lover, of course, isn't in the right place. If we take the confrontation between the lumberjack and the tree as a model, the young lover is not exactly the lumberjack, although it is his nature that directly or indirectly sets in motion every conflict in the story. Let's also say, though, that he sure as hell isn't the tree.

The film, the feature debut of writer/director John Maclean, is a good old-fashioned Western in that it gives us familiar characters (with performances that understand those characters on an elemental level), a comfortable backdrop (with the beautifully sparse vistas of New Zealand filling in quite convincingly for the mountains and plains of the Western United States circa 1870), and a shootout at the end. It's also, as is so often the case since the genre fell out of style in the 1970s, a commentary on the romanticized view of the Old West.

The film begins with Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the naively idealistic lover, lying on the ground and looking up at the night sky, pointing at the stars of Orion's Belt with his six-shooter and making them glow just a bit brighter. The next morning, he rides his horse through the slimly populated remains of a Native American village, wanders through an ash-filled forest, and finds himself between of a trio of American soldiers and a Native American man that they're hunting.

Soon enough, Jay is pointing his gun at Silas (Michael Fassbender), the experienced man of the West, who is in turn pointing a gun at the Army officer. In one of his multiple suitcases, Jay has his trusty traveler's guide for immigrants in the American West, and something tells us that there's no chapter in the book about making sure your revolver is clean and oiled.

After the inevitable violence, Silas convinces Jay that the kid needs a chaperone, and it might as well be someone who's willing and able to shoot when necessary. Jay has come from Scotland to find Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled to America with her father (Rory McCann) after a fatal accident in the not-so-old country.

Jay loves Rose. In flashbacks, Rose calls him a "silly boy" and compares her feelings for him to those she might have for a younger brother. Jay is not one to take a hint, because that's his nature.

It turns out that it's Silas' nature to use the kid as a way to find Rose and her father, who have a $2,000 bounty on their heads on account of the incident back in Scotland. That kind of money brings out a slew of deadly men, including Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of Silas' old gang.

That's the plot, although Maclean isn't too concerned with something as trivial as that. The film gives us a string of encounters that share certain characteristics and that all repeat the idea of de-romanticizing the myth of the West.

The eradication of the Native Americans is one concern, starting with the first confrontation and culminating in a scene between Jay and Werner (Andrew Robertt), a writer from Germany who is documenting the "extinction of aboriginal peoples" across the globe (Actually, this thread might conclude later, with the punch line of someone "catching" an arrow). Werner says he doesn't mind the company of killers, but his parting advice and gift suggest otherwise.

Maclean seems to be primarily attentive to the immigrant experience in the Old West. Jay is one. Silas suggests he is, too (His father is buried in Ireland, and his mother is interred in Canada). Rose and her father obviously are, and there's also a desperate scene in a store (while Jay is trying on a suit with a bloody bullet hole in the lining), where a Swedish couple tries to obtain provisions and some kind of leg up while only knowing a handful of words—"blanket," "sorry," "money," "please."

The point is clear: People came to this place, at this time, seeking opportunity but found themselves ill-prepared, unwanted, and unsure of how to survive. Jay argues that there's more to life than survival. After witnessing that scene in the store, though, we kind of side with Silas on the matter—that the best we can do is hope that Darwin was wrong about the whole "survival of the fittest" thing.

The climax of Slow West also happens to pass the test of what makes for a great shootout: We're invested in the characters (enough so that an ingenious gag in which a character figuratively and literally has salt poured into a wound is equal parts funny and sad), and Maclean uses geography and space—the open expanse around and the interior of a cabin—to their fullest. What sticks, though, is how the film uses the template of the Western as a means of dissecting the harsh reality of its time and place. This is fascinating, wickedly funny, and subversive stuff.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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