written by: John Maclean
produced by: Rachel Gardner, Iain Canning, Conor McCaughan, Emile Sherman
directed by: John Maclean
rating: R (for violence and brief language)
runtime: 84 min.
U.S. release date: May 3, 2015 (Chicago Critics Film Festival); May 15, 2015 (limited release)
"Wearing a dress don't make you a lady."
Critics have delighted in writing the Western's obituary for decades now, and while it's obviously not the dominating genre it once was, it's still alive and well in independent cinema. Films such as Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff and last year's The Homesman have proven the vitality of the Western in this decade, and now first time feature director John Maclean's Slow West can be included among the films taking the genre to new and interesting places. Shot with all the elegance of this century's best Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the beautiful, funny, and often bone chilling Slow West is a welcome addition to this once more burgeoning genre. The film deftly balances moments of shocking violence with laugh out loud funny bits of business and dialogue, portraying this brutal time in American history with an equally brutal honesty.
As Jay Cavendish, a young Scottish man who has come to America to track down his long lost love, Kodi Smit-McPhee cuts an interesting variation on the naïve innocent trying to make his way in a hostile landscape. Jay has left Scotland to find Rose (Caren Pistorius), a girl he is deeply in love with, who fled the country with her father (Rory McCann) after what amounted to a violent mistake. Jay soon crosses paths with Silas (Michael Fassbender), an outlaw who offers to accompany Jay west, though his motives remain questionable despite his seemingly good-hearted nature. The pair soon find themselves being pursued by a vicious gang of outlaws headed by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), and as the shared past between Silas and Payne comes to light, everyone's true intentions are called into question.
Slow West delights in small moments, often framing the characters against the vastness of the wild open western United States in beautiful tableaus. This beauty belies the true horrors that await these characters, however, though the film's greatest strength is in never losing its wicked sense of humor. In fact, the climax houses the film's greatest gut punch, which is immediately followed by what is quite possibly the heartiest laugh in the entire film. This dichotomy works incredibly well, and is never as jarring or forced as it may sound. The film's true magnificence lies in its willingness to constantly undercut the brutality with a laugh, but it's also not above allowing a truly pitch black moment of horror linger at the climax of the film's first act.
Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan give the film an elegance befitting the romanticism that often accompanies the late 19th century time period in which the film is set. The score by Jed Kurzel is also every bit as stylish as the film itself, which should come as no surprise to anyone who heard his work on last year's outstanding horror flick The Babadook. Despite the title's promise of a leisurely pace, the film has a drive and breezes by in just under ninety minutes, never overstaying its welcome, and communicating the exposition in a series of brilliantly concise flashbacks. The only fault with the film is its sometimes "on the nose" dialogue, where the characters speak in quips and quotes rather than actual dialogue, but this is a minor quibble.
What helps it remain minor is the absolutely brilliant performances by the film's cast, in particular Fassbender and Smit-McPhee, who have an easy going chemistry and sell their relationship marvelously. Fassbender continues to impress every time out of the gate lately, proving himself to be one of the most versatile leading men around, and one who's certainly not afraid to be unlikable. If the film has an MVP, however, it has got to be Ben Mendelsohn, who is fast becoming one of the premier character actors in film. His role amounts to virtually one big scene, with a handful of lines in other scenes, but Mendelsohn's true gift is to constantly leave an audience wanting more. That he manages to be the most dynamic presence in the film when sharing the screen with Fassbender is nothing short of validation of his immense talent as an actor.
Slow West, while hardly a crowd-pleasing, rip-roaring good time, is a fascinating and endlessly watchable film that demands your attention. Thanks to an economy of storytelling and a trio of knockout performances, the film is a high wire act that's every bit as thrilling to watch both in breathless anticipation and in the relief of the aftermath. While it falls victim to a number of first time filmmaking pitfalls, the moments that work are numerous and work so well, they completely erase any memory of the things that don't work. Fans of the Western can rejoice that there's yet another incredibly well crafted addition to the genre, and perhaps the best thing about Slow West is how well it will continue to play on repeat viewings.