It’s always intriguing to see a director’s first feature-length film. What’s the screenplay about, what obstacles did they have to surmount to get the job or the funding, what genre is it? There’s a lot you can learn about a person based on the projects they put their heart into; sometimes you can even catch a glimpse of what their work will evolve into later on. If Slow West is any indication, writer/director/candlestick-maker John Maclean’s career is one to keep an eye on.
The movie opens with Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) setting up our story. In the early 1800s, a young man leaves Scotland in search of the girl he loves. We find out through short scenes interspersed throughout the film that Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a deep, unrequited love for Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), and through a set of tragic circumstances, Rose is forced to leave her home and travel to America. Feeling at-fault, Jay follows, trying to find the girl who holds his heart. Silas, seeing Jay and realizing the young teenager is looking for someone, inserts himself in his affairs, bringing some remnants of his past along with him.
It’s impossible to talk about the Old West without talking about how western films exemplified the rugged (usually white and male) individualist, and treated the native population as though they were mere obstacles to be overcome in the “pioneers’” attempt to “tame the West.” Slow West knows this and doesn’t shy away from it; rather, it repeatedly makes a point of establishing how brutal and racist this society was. Silas, filling the role of our dangerous outlaw (with a twist), expresses some measure of disgust with the way the indigenous people are treated, as does a swindler traveling the plains. The film is pretty clear about this: racism is bad, even morally ambiguous people think so, but it’s still pervasive. This is probably the most clear cut thing the movie has to say, and really, if you have to pick one message to be clear about, that’s a good one. There’s no romanticism here; rather, that romanticism is pointedly criticized. Yet, the movie still uses a lot of the symbolism of the genre effectively, right down to a horseshoe getting hung upright at the end.
Silas is a deliberate challenge to the Rugged Individualist Cowboy; he believes a lot of harsh things about the world, but, as Jay tells him: “You’re lonely.” He lived the life of an outlaw and left it, and now finds himself without any great significant meaning to his life except simply moving forward. In Jay, he finds someone so full of the purpose and hope he wishes he had for himself. It’s not something he actively yearns for, but he has enough empathy to be moved when he sees it in someone else. None of this is explicitly stated, and possibly the greatest criticism I could reasonably make about this film is that Silas’ arc feels a little thin. At 84 minutes, this is a very short movie, and it would have been better served by exploring Silas at least a little bit more. But, seeing as four production companies are listed in the opening credits, I suspect the film had limited resources for character exploration. As it stands, Silas is a layered and pleasant challenge to an old archetype if not a fully-explored person, the strength of his characterization lying somewhere between the tone of his dialogue and Michael Fassbender’s grimace.
Truthfully, this is an odd sort of movie. You can see it’s very well done, but it’s difficult to get a read on it. There’s a passivity to it, almost. Typically in movies, the music, the camera, and other aspects of the film are used to establish an emotional tone, to emphasize how you’re supposed to feel about the events onscreen. That doesn’t happen here, not much; the movie hangs back and we, the audience, are expected to place this emphasis ourselves. It’s a movie full of questions. Do we think as Silas does, in the beginning, that the world is a brutal place, full of murderers and thieves? Do we believe as Jay does, that everything is an opportunity for hope and kindness? Or are people, and by extension, our societies, more complicated than that? These questions are not directly posed, nor directly answered, but there’s a sort of austere beauty in the way they are presented and then folded into the plot.
Slow West does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a slow movie about the West. If you’re looking for something reminiscent of old Western films with outlaws and duels at high noon, this ain’t it. If you’re after something creative, something thoughtful, something honest; well, this is probably gonna hit the spot.Liked This? Share It!