A remote trading post in the Colorado territory of the Old West. No other signs of civilization for miles. It is a sight for sore eyes for a 17 year old boy and his grizzled companion, a chance to sit in chairs and eat and replenish supplies. It is a respite from the cruel, harsh climes of the world. That is, until two desperate people barge in and try to make off with some items without paying their fair share. Guns are pulled, muzzles flash and before they know it, the two men looking for calm are surrounded by bodies and blood. The depart, with handfuls of suddenly free provisions, only to find two children waiting patiently on the side of the road for guardians who will never come. The West is a nasty, nasty place.
Such is the world of Slow West, the feature debut of writer/director John Maclean. The boy is Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee, continuing to age into Jay Baruchel at an alarming rate), a Scot who has traveled to America in order to find his young love, Rose (Caren Pistorious), on the run from her native land due to circumstances for which Jay finds himself at fault. His companion is Silas (Michael Fassbender), a prototypical cowboy being paid for his services, though he seems to have shadowy ulterior motives. Their trudge through the forests and prairies is littered with danger, and none are more dangerous than Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of a gang of outlaws with a fantastically ostentatious coat and his own reasons for tracking Jay and Silas. With everyone set to converge on Rose’s remote cabin, fireworks are certain to be on their way.
The marketing and poster of Slow West would make one believe that Michael Fassbender is the main attraction of Maclean’s film. But make no mistake, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Jay is the audience’s window into this world, and his vision of the Old West is not entirely what one would normally expect. Jay sees this new environment as a place imbued with a dreamlike, almost otherworldly sense of beauty and wonder. Stardust, faraway nebulae and constellations litter a night sky free of light pollution. The cosmos is on fire with his imagination, a visual interpretation of the romantic, rustic charms of the West shared by those who never stared down the barrel of a revolver or the claws of a bear. This sort of outlook is exactly what Silas tries to eliminate, ridding Jay’s poor, overburdened steed of tea kettles and books and fancy clothes, the sort of creature comforts the can only result in letting one’s guard down in this unforgiving terrain. This approach serves to buoy what is otherwise a languidly paced series of vignettes, some more engaging than others, that often seem to remain at an arm’s length. Smit-McPhee has grown into a capable actor, but the script does not give him much to work with in its first two acts. A seasoned actor like Fassbender (and Mendelsohn, for that matter) can make a feast of table scraps, but Smit-McPhee could have used some more reinforcement in the first fifty minutes.
What does not need reinforcing, however, is Slow West’s third act, an overwhelming showdown at the cabin of Rose and her father (Game of Thrones vet Rory McCann), framed by an endless golden wheat field. As Payne’s gang begins their assault, bounty rewards shining in their eyes, Maclean’s visual acuity again takes the fore, honed into sharp relief. Bandits pop out from the cover of grain, take a few shots and retreat like the cardboard cutouts of Hogan’s Alley, Mendelsohn standing astride among them, uninterested in hiding, resplendent in his fabulous fur coat, an oversized revolver dangling from his hand. Multiple storylines come to a head, and editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory handle the shifting perspectives with clarity and aplomb. The finale capitalizes on an undercurrent of gallows humor sewn into the fabric of this world, offering one of the best and most absurd laughs of this young year, though it does not take long for that laugh to catch in the back of the throat and curdle, the shock of the comedy mixed with the horror of its implications. It is an especially strong third act, one that goes a long way toward covering up the deficiencies of its first half.
It is difficult not to come out of a screening of Slow West on a high note. Its finale is so thrilling that it lingers sharper in the mind, though this feeling begins to fade the further it stretches from the present. When taken as a whole, the film begins to show its cracks. It is a film that tends to struggle with its momentum in its first two acts, often feeling like a series of mini-plays lacking connective tissue. It always narrowly fails to coalesce, like Rose’s attempt at making butter, spilling over the table when loosed from its wooden mold. But that gulf is indeed narrow, exceedingly so, and there is quite a lot to be found in these disparate threads that remain at distance from one another. Most notably, it feels like a first feature, warts and all, which is no bad thing. Maclean shows promise and a keen eye, and while Slow West does not completely connect the dots in a wholly satisfying way, it does shine a light on a bright future.