By Elias Savada.
John Ford’s nowhere to be found. Stagecoach (1939) has left the building. There’s also no widescreen, large-ensemble-driven Silverado (1985) on the golden western horizon. Slow West is the latest film that tries to reinvent a genre that has died off more times than John Wayne can remember. And he’s dead, too. Here’s a period American western featuring a quartet of actors – two Australian, one German, the other South African – playing two Scots, and Irish-Canadian, and an American – in a United Kingdom/New Zealand co-production that did not shoot a single digital frame in the United States. The long landscape shots are still there, fleetingly, but first-time feature director John Maclean and his director of photography Robbie Ryan opted to film in the lesser, European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 rather than the expansive (1.85 or 2:39) U.S. standards. It makes for a more intimate, character-driven piece that makes you notice the wild, wild west up, up close. Sure, there are shootouts on the plains, they’re just a little different than you’d expect.
The story is about an American frontiersman and bounty hunter, cigar-smoking Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who acts as the film’s narrator and as Uber chaperone for Jay Cavendish, a naïve 16-year-old stargazer and fish-out-of-water Scotsman (and virgin, to boot), heading to Colorado to be with Rose Ross (Caren Pistorious), his true lady fair. “A jackrabbit in a den of wolves,” Silas intones just before their paths meet. It’s 1870, and Rose and her father (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann) have a $2,000 price on their wanted-dead-or-alive heads. Others are on their trail, including Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a conniving, fur-enshrouded bounty hunter with a band of thieves (years earlier including Silas, too) in search of its next reward. As for Silas, he’s lightly calloused wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding in plain sight from the boy.
Maclean previously made a couple of shorts in 2009 and 2011 (Man on a Motorcycle; Pitch Black Heist) featuring Fassbender, who is also one of the film’s executive producers. Maclean earlier made music (and associated videos) with the Scottish cult pop group The Beta Band, whose members parted ways over a decade ago. As he’s developed as a filmmaker, he’s learned to better rely on his crew, with production designer Kim Sinclair and costumer Kirsty Cameron offering authentic lived-in looks in Slow West. I think Maclean chose wisely with his selection of Jed Kurzel for a counterpointed score, at times plucky like a light European romantic comedy, then switching to a mournful, steady dirge that implies a fatalism that can’t be brushed aside, as desperate people die on their way west.
For most of the stock and quirky characters who meet up with Silas and Jay, it’s a no brainer that most of the folks seeking a new life in the New World won’t find it. Maclean’s script is Coen-esque, with the love story (Rose and Jay’s relationship, and the crime in their backstory, is developed in scenes glimpsed through Jay’s memories and dreams) honing to its own path outside the rugged western model in which it’s set. The comedy – the dry, parched variety – is sparse yet witty, including a windswept note left on the desert floor that has the word “West” and an arrow pointing left (of what). Or a comic encounter between Jay, an arrow, and some Native Americans.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema–Dramatic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Slow West ambles to its inevitable bloody conclusion, a beautifully orchestrated ballet cast with heroes, fools, unwelcomed guests, and lovers, assembled in the fields of the Lord. Welcome back to the West.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.