Slow West (2015)
There was a time when the western genre was king. It created stars in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and then America just kind of got over it. Maybe it’s like Toy Story 2 asserts, that the emergence of space travel heralded the end of the cowboy. But this was a genre that made up so much of our cinematic history. Other genres have gone through similar ebbs and flows, perhaps the clearest parallel is with the gangster genre. Where other genres found ways to live on and transform with audiences western seems all but forgotten, with only the occasional modern film heading back to the expansive years of America. Slow West isn’t only the modern western we want, but what the genre wholeheartedly deserves.
This is a world enriched with complexly built characters, developed with a delicate nuance that enhances them, adding captivating depth.
Slow West has a deep appreciation for and knowledge of the western genre as a whole. This is a film informed by the greats that came before it. However, it manages to revere without having to be beholden. The aesthetic, the language, and even the story are decidedly western, but the execution has the flair of an indie with a smart head on its shoulders, unafraid of venturing into the contemplative and nearly comical. It recognizes the pig-headed nature of a multitude of its characters, but does not allow this simplifying stupidity to be the only facet of their nature.
First time writer-director John Maclean recognizes the necessity of plot and basic story structure, but is far more concerned with the people that populate his world. He draws each and every one with the grace and care that many other films will only afford the main character, and many more not even that. You never get the feeling that space is being filled in, every action is that of a fully-developed character acting in the manner that makes sense to their history. This is a world enriched with complexly built characters, developed with a delicate nuance that enhances them, adding captivating depth. This care for character development allows for a deeper cinematic experience, where you are constantly struggling to understand just who should be trusted and for how long.
Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn were made for westerns. They are the type of actors that know just how much to give and that silence can often explain even more than dialogue. Fassbender’s quiet swagger and endless confidence make you want to follow him, but that distant stare leaves us knowing that there is some trouble lingering beneath. Mendelsohn carries his villainy cloaked in welcoming comradery and huge fur coat. There is no doubt that his Payne is bad for us, but his smarmy charm is so infectious that you let him slither in, just accepting the inevitability of this terrible decision. While Kodi Smit-McPhee does a perfectly fine job, his perpetually love-addicted and real-world ignorant Jay Cavendish is just far less appealing than Fassbender’s Silas. We nearly accept and push aside Jay’s descent into the nastier side of the West, whereas Silas’ retribution is something we cling to as he becomes the hero he had so long pushed against.
The majority of Slow West is a slow burn up until now, gradually building the tension and playing out with the simplified grace of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
The world of Slow West as captured by cinematographer Robbie Ryan is expansive and exquisitely beautiful in all of its depravity. Ryan, who has primarily shot small character driven films like Philomena and Fish Tank, makes it look like he’s been itching to shoot a western for his entire career. There is a simplicity to the shots that allow the environments to speak for themselves and with each new area our characters drift into possessing its own distinct personality. The final stand, and the film’s action centerpiece, seemingly runs counter to the western aesthetic, brightly lit and with a Wes Anderson level of attention to detail. Yet, somehow it works magnificently. It is heart-pounding and kinetic, however through it all, part of you just kind of wants everything to slow down so you can really take in the miraculous visuals on display.
Oh and that last gunfight. Shot with an unflinching enthusiasm that would make Sam Peckinpah proud, it is a marvel to behold. The majority of Slow West is a slow burn up until now, gradually building the tension and playing out with the simplified grace of a Cormac McCarthy novel. That tension boils over and erupts in a hail of gunfire and abrupt violence. The battle manages to be exciting, terrifying, and oddly enough, occasionally funny. The cinematography and choreography join hands in a wonderful marriage of cohesive visual storytelling while never pushing to the point of surrealism. The bullets land sharply and their lethality is never questioned, for Slow West is always aware of its own reality, the inherent sadness of our world and the actuality of tragedy and comedy’s interactions. John Maclean’s Slow West is one of the best westerns in recent memory. Its purposefully driven characters deliver simple yet lyrical dialogue in a world of violence and trickery. Smart, brutal, and thrilling, Slow West embodies and elevates all of the best facets of its genre.
John Maclean’s Slow West is one of the best westerns in recent memory. Its purposefully driven characters deliver simple yet lyrical dialogue in a world of violence and trickery. Smart, brutal, and thrilling, Slow West embodies and elevates all of the best facets of its genre.