Slow West looks very much like your average movie Western until briefly and unexpectedly … it doesn’t.
The first digression comes early on, as a 16-year-old named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) looks up at the endless stars, names the constellations and then points his gun at them. He fires a few imaginary bullets, and with each one the star he was aiming at emits a brighter glow.
Jay is on a journey from Scotland, pursuing the girl he loved after she suddenly fled with her father to the American West of 1870. Along the way, he experiences other dollops of magical realism, including the trio of black men singing in a field in the middle of nowhere. When they pause and ask him – in French – if he likes their song, Jay replies in the same language. Later, an anthropologist of sorts welcomes Jay to his elaborate wagon camp one night, but disappears the next morning with hardly a trace. These instances and encounters establish Jay as a stranger in a strange land, among even stranger folk. They also suggest that writer-director John Maclean, making his feature debut, is going to take a slightly odd approach to the well-trod genre.
Fassbender gives the iconic gestures his own roguish stamp.
That he does, even if Slow West isn’t exactly revolutionary, or even revisionist. Instead, it’s a familiar yarn told in a somewhat unfamiliar drawl. Eventually Jay meets a mysterious drifter named Silas (Michael Fassbender), and Maclean adds a touch of film noir to his eclectic mix. A lawless man, Silas still has enough scruples to make him vulnerable to more ruthless men. And so he agrees to guide Jay to the homestead where his Rose (Caren Pistorius) should be waiting, somewhat against his better judgment. Picture Sam Spade in a rumpled cowboy hat rather than a fedora.
Or just picture Fassbender, who is – unsurprisingly – quite good. Whether chomping on a cigarillo or grimacing at having to take unfortunate lethal action, he gives Silas’ iconic gestures his own roguish stamp. And while Smit-McPhee has a pale tenderness as Jay, the two actors never quite establish the sort of rapport that the narrative assumes about their characters. In fact, the movie as a whole has a better handle on individuals than relationships, as the Jay-Rose romance, despite a series of flashbacks, never registers as more than a star-crossed cliché.
Still, Slow West offers enough idiosyncrasies to distinguish itself, especially in its brutal ending. A tense shootout against a golden wheat field and bright blue sky, the finale functions as a cautionary tale of naiveté – about other lands, other people and the nature of love. Maclean also offers a striking coda that soberly underlines all of the violence that has come before. In a series of tableau shots, we revisit the dead corpse of every person who has been killed throughout the course of the film, pausing for a few mournful seconds with each one. Few Westerns – few movies in general – are this honest and sorrowful about their body count.