The Slow West: Westerns Retold or a Pretty Mess?

Directed by John Maclean
See-Saw Films/A24
84 minutes, R (violence)
* * *

Depending upon whom you ask, The Slow West is either an intriguing foreign take on American Westerns or an eye-catching mess. From where I sit, it's a bit of both. This Scottish/New Zealand film marks the directorial debut of John Maclean, who hitherto was famed for being part of Scotland's Beta Band, an innovative indie band ensemble compared to Radio Head that blended folk, electronica, and acid rock. Maclean may be used to mash ups, but it remains an open question as to whether this is a Tartan/Kiwi retelling of American legends, or an unintentional parody analogous to bad spaghetti Westerns.  

At just 84 minutes, the film is certainly worth a gamble if you're intrigued, but be warned: the title is both a play on the "Old" West and a statement that the pace will be languid with breaks of action, not vice versa. It opens in Scotland, where 15-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is trying to court Rose Ross (the luminous Caren Pistorious) and must dive under the bed when her protective father, John  (Rory McCann), arrives home early. As movie convention tells us, that's a terrible place to hide, but as John is giving young Jay a brogue-laden tongue-lashing, the local laird arrives to demand rent the Roses don't have. When he has the discourtesy to slap Rose, her father gives him a crofter's fatal heave-ho onto an inconveniently placed rock. This was capital offense stuff in 1869 Scotland; hence father and daughter go on the lamb—to America.

Move the clock forward one year and besotted Jay is making his way across the American West in search of Rose. Every bounty hunter in the region seems to know what Jay does not: that there's a trans-Atlantic $2,000 dead-or-alive bounty (about $37,000 in 2014 dollars) on John and Rose. It's an understatement to say that Jay, a 16-year-old romantic innocent, isn't terribly prepared to negotiate the lawless West.  Luckily he runs into Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who offers to be a pay-for-service guide. Silas is a classic Western loner of few words about whom the only thing we learn for certain is that he once traveled with a motley gang headed by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). Is Silas a free spirit, a stubble-faced paternal do-gooder hidden behind a crusty exterior, or is he playing Jay like a cheap accordion so he can collect the bounty on the Rosses? The two make their way across the indeterminate West—we're never told exactly where we're supposed to be–against a backdrop of casual violence, desperation, hostile Natives, cutout bad guys, majestic backdrops, and capricious nature before secrets are revealed. All of these, of course, are also standard Western tropes, as is Maclean's blood-soaked denouement.
It's surprising to see Fassbender amidst this cast of relative unknowns, though to their credit, most of them are very good. Pistorious (Rose) is especially strong in the limited role she plays. Her bearing alone suggests Jay might be on a foolish boy's errand; in the intervening year, Rose has transformed from a coquette into a confident young woman with weighty things upon her mind. The bigger question is whether the film works, or if it demonstrates little more than Maclean's fascination for Big Sky Country based upon an incomplete understanding of it.

Once again, both readings are possible. Maclean chose New Zealand's South Island (near Twizel) as a stand-in for the edge-of-the–Rockies West. It's not accurate: The Remarkables are more lush and green for a start, nor will you find a preponderance of lupine-filled riverbeds or walls of yellow gorse in the Rocky Mountain plains as one does in the Canterbury (NZ) Plain. Does that matter? Yes if you think a film about the West needs to pay John Ford-like reverence to the landscape. No; if you think Maclean's point is that humans are but pretty puny and fragile dots upon nature's pristine carpet of grandeur. We must also give Maclean credit for avoiding one hackneyed Western trope: the violence he shows is pointless, not redemptive or cleansing. (Note to Maclean: No one used Colt-45s in 1870, as it wasn't invented for another three years.)

This is an odd film in that it looks beautiful and is well acted, yet feels unrealized. It's been a bomb in US markets (under $230,000 in receipts) but you might want to give it a look. If you come away feeling as if it's just a glossier version of an early 1960s TV show, I'd not dispute you, but I'll gleefully watch gloss filmed in New Zealand.   Rob Weir

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