A Beautifully Cinematic Post-Modern Western
By: Katelyn Fournier
Edited by: Anthony Zangrillo
John Maclean’s directorial debut Slow West begins just as the title suggests—slowly, but with a series of cinematically gorgeous images that invoke an almost surreal vision of the post-Civil War west.
The film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as the naïve, aspiring hero Jay Cavendish and Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck, the jaded anti-hero who helps—or tricks—young Jay track down his lost love Rose Ross, who is also being trailed by bounty hunters hungry for a $2000 blood-money reward.
Played by Caren Pistorius, Rose’s character manages to retain profound complexity despite her damsel-in-distress role. Dialogue between characters is minimal, but effective, and occasionally supplemented by Silas’ voice-over narration.
Dark humor is abundant in this film, with visual jokes that crop up in-between bleak scenes that demonstrate the violence, oppression, and heartlessness of the frontier. One of the funniest images of the film was the skeleton of a man holding an ax who had been killed by the tree he chopped down. An ironic and appropriate metaphor for inexperienced and even foolish pioneers blindly travelling west to seek their fortune. In general, the humor of the film ranged from clever and understated to good old-fashioned fabliau.
Close-up shots of various objects and actors, followed by long shots of the landscape dominate Slow West’s visual style. Filmed in New Zealand, the almost dream-like landscape sets up Jay’s treacherous journey and gives weight to Silas’ narration that Jay was “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”
Deeply melancholic flashbacks also reveal what Jay’s character does not reveal to Silas—that his romance with Rose is entirely one-sided. It wasn’t necessary to go into much detail in the present timeline of Jay and Rose’s “love story” to appreciate how their relationship causes a chain reaction of chaos for all involved in the manhunt.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that this film ultimately ends, as all true Westerns must, with a dramatic shootout between outlaws, bounty hunters, and heroes alike. John Maclean manages to fit in several more comedic moments in the final scenes, sealing Slow West as a classic example of the tragicomedy, and a worthy first film for Maclean as a director.
Ultimately, Slow West is a Western that embraces the genre’s traditions while still retaining and exploring its own originality with striking visual images and a cast of oddball outcast characters. The film paints a picture of the west as we might imagine it really was at that time—beautiful, bleak, dangerous, unsentimental, and stubbornly hopeful. Contradictions are what drew us to the west back in the turn of the 19th century, and contradictions are what will draw audiences to Slow West. It is a post-modern Western, but one that transcends unforgiving pessimism by trading it for dark humor and the right touch of tragedy.