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Filmed in the crisp country of New Zealand, Slow West cracks the whip on the classic Western. Closer to surrealist fable than Stagecoach or The Searchers (which, despite its status as a definitive Western, is, itself, an early example of revisionism), we follow fresh faced posh boy Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), journeying through the late 1800s America in search of a lost love (Caren Pistorius). Already the wheels of symbolism churn; an idealistic youth searches for his idyllic life in the old American frontier. Moments after meeting him his vigor is admonished—Jay enters a forest haze, a fog made not from vapor, but from the floating ash of incinerated teepees. He and his horse emerge coated with the remains of the Native American civilization, a harrowing image to introduce us to first time writer-director John Maclean’s stark and strangely uncanny vision of the wild west.
Silas (Michael Fassbender), one of the last remaining bounty hunters and lacks any of the slick-faced cool that made Clint Eastwood a superstar, murders a military officer. Killing Native Americans, he says, stripped the military man of his rank. This is only the first of many times Silas reveals himself to be a good man trying to bag a bad one, and as a bounty hunter on the prowl for Jay’s lady love Rose Ross, he agrees to accompany Jay for $50 now and $50 later. Silas’ old gang leader named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) wears a comically gigantic fur coat, and he wants in on the action. Maclean is wildly ambitious, delivering a succinct 80 minute heavily symbolic visual odyssey that’s only occasionally interrupted by offbeat dialogue scenes. Performances are honed in and real, not so much subdued as much as controlled and exact. The cast knows the tenor that’s expected of them in a work this tonally zealous, even the young Kodi Smit-McPhee, who holds his own with the best of them. As a character piece, Fassbender, McPhee, and Mendelsohn thrive in bringing their respective characters to life, especially during suspenseful shootouts that often are dominated in irony that’s both thematic and laugh-out-loud funny.
Not all of the disparate elements—pleasant and revelatory as they sometimes are—manage to fall in harmony. While revisionist, it’s less bold than 2007s Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and fails to reinvent the West into the reimagined myth it desperately wants to be. Don’t get me wrong, director John Maclean’s confidence in his talent simply prohibits Slow West from seeming try-hard. He’s an artist steady in his aim, who knows where to put the camera, when to cut, and when to intersperse inappropriate moments of outburst comedy that tickle. Somewhere, the Coens are smiling. One of the most ambitious, heady westerns in years (not as though there’s ripe competition in that category, despite last year’s The Homesman), Maclean is contemplative of classic Western themes like redemption and rebirth while also musing on the tragic and systematic annihilation of the Native Americans.
Lengths of Slow West hypnotize, tantalizing with surreal vibrant hillscapes that are brazenly uncharacteristic of the Western. Absent is the sepia-toned picture-show style that was already traded for nostalgic currency in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, instead infusing edge to edge of the frame with deeply saturated greens, blues, and golds that really pop. Slow West isn’t in 3D, but some of Robbie Ryan’s immaculate cinematography feels like it stretches into and back out of the frame. That’s only one of the many dream-like elements that together conjure a transportive otherworldly tone unlike any Western I’ve ever seen. The pervasive surrealism is an unexpected facet.
In a scene that plays the reverse of what we’ve seen a hundred times before, Jay stumbles into the wrong campfire and a new threat immediately emerges, gun ready. But instead of beckoning for his life or retreating to look for the camp of his own—how it’s usually played—Jay calmly sits as if he was a member of their gang all along. It’s surreal, odd, but still subtle enough not to jolt you out of the movie, and watching Jay act as serene as a teenager on horse tranquilizer is just one of Slow West’s moments of dream logic.
Jay only leaves after listening story told in flashback that’s all about murder and legend and adds to the weirdness of the film (especially as the mouths of the actors in the flashback are voiced over by the old feller telling the story instead of their own). Roland Gallois’ and Jon Gregory’s editing style exemplifies the strangeness. We start with a shot of Jay’s weirdly chill reaction followed by a point-of-view shot of the camp—heightening the peculiar quality at work. Had Maclain made camp there and didn’t continue journeying out, Slow West would have been a memorable experiment in formalism, playing with the style of the Western in fun and even brave ways.
A dichotomy emerges between the absurdist elements and the prevailing lived-in grit of Jay’s wanderings. Like Robert Altman’s masterwork (and for my money his best movie) McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the West is slow (title!) and the West is bloody. A possible reason cowboy and pirate fantasies share similar popularity with children is their unpredictability—the Caribbean Ocean and the “Wild West” are empty spaces to be filled by a kid’s excited imagination. Here, the same expanse, the frontier, is rife with violent unknowns. Gone is the glory of John Wayne‘s golden tenure. Instead trees come alive, revealing camouflaged Native Americans who instantly fire deadly arrows at your head. In Slow West’s vision of those times, trust in your surroundings, your past, in other people, in your love ones, and even trust in yourself and your own feelings, are as uncertain as what next nasty truth lies around the corner.
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