Metro Weekly

Review: Slow West

Michael Fassbender / Slow West
Michael Fassbender / Slow West

Great movies can inspire us to interrogate social ills, or teach us a thing or two about our beliefs. Slow West (starstarstarstar), a not-so ordinary western by debut director John Maclean, does a bit of both. The film begins, as most in the genre do, as myth: “Once upon a time,” a narrator says, “a 16-year-old kid traveled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love.” The myth quickly gives way to something more ambitious, though, as that coming-of-age premise becomes a vehicle for Maclean’s absurdist broadside against frontier nostalgia. There may be romance in the West, he’s saying, but it isn’t a place to be romanticized.

We meet the kid, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as he wanders alone, deep in Colorado territory, guided by a two-bit paperback titled “Ho! For the West!!” The son of Scottish aristocrats, he’s wildly ill-prepared until he meets a bounty hunter named Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender, doing an excellent Clint Eastwood impersonation). Silas makes him an offer: if Jay gives him $100 — half now, half later — he’ll help him reach his beloved Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Of course, that offer only comes after Jay watched Silas shoot a man and loot his body. Not much of a choice, really. He agrees, then they hit the trail.

Jay is a “jackrabbit in a den of wolves,” as Silas describes, naive and oblivious in a dangerous place. He never wanders into trouble, exactly, but he’s so absorbed by his mission — find Rose, save Rose, love Rose — he doesn’t stop to consider how impossible his idealized future has become. He won’t acknowledge the many times she turned down his advances; he doesn’t understand how she’s acclimated to frontier life; and unbelievably enough, he hasn’t learned that she and her father (Rory McCann) are wanted for murder, hiding out with a $2,000 bounty on their heads. But Silas knows — and so does his former gang, led by a desperado named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). The hunt is on.

With Slow West, Maclean aims to deconstruct the traditional Western. He’s picking apart a genre that, to be frank, has indulged a lot of hackneyed ideas about race, gender, and American history. That legacy shouldn’t be ignored, so I’m glad to say he often hits his mark. His misses are not easily forgotten — at one point Jay meets a German anthropologist who laments, with remarkably anachronistic sensibility, how history will selectively remember the American Indian — but the effect nonetheless heightens tension as the story accelerates toward a climactic shootout in Rose’s farmhouse. It is still a Western, after all. There’s gotta be a big shootout.

When the last bullets are fired, and the survivors take stock of what’s left, Slow West conducts a macabre census, cutting slowly from dead body to dead body. The casualties are shot from above, without elegiacs, as they lay in pools of their own blood. What were they killed for? Who has been saved? This isn’t a story about how the West was won. It’s about how it was spun.

Slow West is rated R and runs 84 minutes. At the AFI Silver.

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