Slow West

If Wes Anderson made a Western, it might look like this

Alow West

Rating Slow WestSlow WestSlow WestSlow West

Written and directed by John Maclean. Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn, Jeffrey Thomas, Brooke Williams, Alex MacQueen, Rory McCann, Kalani Queypo, Michael Whalley, Andy McPhee.

Well, it’s slow, and it’s set in the West. Truth in movie titling.

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But it’s not quite a Western. Director John Maclean’s Slow West is going for something like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, but it’s much too simplistic and straightforward to work on that level.

Instead, the film gives off more of a Coen bros. vibe, and maybe a little more Wes Anderson. It certainly looks great, with picture-perfect framing and crisp cinematography by Robbie Ryan that beautifully captures locales that are about as far from the typical Western dustbowl as possible.

Not that the film necessarily looks or feels authentic; it was mostly shot in rural New Zealand, subbing for 1870 Americana.  

It all feels very precious, until characters start getting blown away in harsh and unforgiving fashion. This wasn’t a friendly time and place to live, as Michael Fassbender’s narration reminds us that while the law is slowly starting to take over, it’s the worst of the criminals that have held out the longest.

Fassbender is Silas Selleck, a drifter and presumed bounty hunter who coincidentally bumps into Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the American wilderness and saves the young lad from a gang of thieves.

Cavendish has travelled to the West from Scotland in search of his love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Despite being the lead character in the movie, we have little understanding for the boy or his longing. He has just a single scene in flashback with Rose, and why he loves her so much (and if the feelings are mutual) is never made clear.

Jay is travelling without a map, to a destination in the middle of nowhere that he likely has no idea about, but intuitively navigates himself and Silas – whom he has commissioned to help him on his journey – to the exact location without any trouble. “It looks exactly as I thought it would,” he remarks upon arriving. Uh-huh.

Rose, meanwhile, has a bounty on her head. For reasons that are, frustratingly, never delved into. Silas, of course, has only accompanied the boy because he is looking for a payday. Also on Rose’s trail are Silas’ old gang, led by Payne (an oddly sedated Ben Mendelsohn), who simply follow the duo as they lead them to their bounty.

Neither Silas nor Payne attempt to simply get Rose’s location out of Jay; it’s like they’re Eli Wallach and Jay is Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Smit-McPhee is no Eastwood – a few slaps and this kid’ll talk, easily. But the film doesn’t even have a good reason why Jay should know Rose’s precise location.

And there’s another bounty hunter after Rose. We know it, because this guy a) walks out of a store with her wanted poster nailed up in front, and b) carries a long bag that probably conceals a rifle, and c) exchanges a shifty glance with Fassbender’s Silas.

Nothing happens for the first hour of Slow West as Jay and Silas make their way across a barren landscape, and debut writer-director Maclean’s precociousness prevents us from getting to know these characters or becoming invested in their story. A ten-minute bloodbath livens things up at the end, but it’s too little, too late.

Still, there are a few small pleasures here, and I got a real, hearty kick out of a certain scene that literalizes the notion of pouring salt on a wound (I mean, it really rubs it in.) But there’s just not enough to overcome the fundamental storytelling issues. 

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