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Non-Review Review: Slow West

There is a reason that the western has fallen from popularity after its cinematic heyday.

For decades, it seemed like Hollywood punctuated its release of western films with sampling for other genre, returning time and again to the story of the men who shaped America from the ground up. Over the years, the familiar tropes have been deconstructed and reconstructed and deconstructed again. They have been mashed up and knocked down and spun around. They have been torn apart and thrown back together with reckless abandon. With all of that going on, it often seems like anything that the genre has to say has been said and repeated time and again.

Life is peaceful there...

Life is peaceful there…

There are probably still things to be said about the myth of the Old West, even if the genre seems as explored and catalogued as the American continent itself. There are little hidden pockets and eccentric spaces that might hold a surprise or several. Slow West doesn’t necessarily have anything new or revelatory to say about the western. It seems unlikely to shatter any illusions or break any preconceptions. A lot of the ground covered by Jay Cavendish and Silas Selleck on their trek westward will be familiar to anybody with a passing knowledge of the genre.

At the same time, there is a lyrical beauty to Slow West. The film is a haunting and evocative trip through a landscape that most viewers know better than their own locality. Slow West might not say anything particularly earth-shattering, but it does articulate itself clearly and elegantly. It is a meticulously crafted film, finely constructed and sumptuously filmed. It might be a tourist trip over well-travelled group, but it takes the most scenic route imaginable.

Saddle up!

Saddle up!

“Once upon a time,” begins Silas, setting a mood for what is to come. Much of Slow West feels ethereal and hyperreal. It feels like a long and rambling story told by a teller who knows his art quite well. It meanders and it dovetails, ebbing and flowing in a way that feels so perfectly organic that it cannot help but be crafted. By the time the villain of the piece shows up, the audience is unsurprised to discover that his name is “Payne.” When we visit the object of Jay’s journey, it is only appropriate that it looks like an impressionist painting.

There is an element of unreality to Jay’s journey westward. As the character pushes further and further in-land, it seems like he is more and more disconnected from the real world. He searches for his beloved through a haunted forest and among fields of barley. Cinematography Robbie Ryan captures the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings, whether it is the sight of a lone caravan in the middle of the desert, a trek through a fog of dirt and dust, or even just a walk alongside an old river bed.

A close shave...

A close shave…

The colour saturation in Slow West is striking. The colour palette of the western has tended towards earthy tones since the late sixties and into the seventies, as the earnestness of the technicolour era gave way to cynicism and internal reflection. While Slow West does feature the occasional desert sequence, most of the film is populated with bright yellows and deep greens. In keeping with the fairytale motif, it feels like the entire film is alive. When Payne shows up, he tends to wear an oversized fur coat – an odd choice that makes him look almost cartoonish.

There is something uncanny about the vision of the Old West that director John Maclean presents in Slow West. Perhaps it is because the stylistic choices of the film run so firmly counter to expectations of the genre, but perhaps it is also down to the fact that the film never feels particularly “old.” Set in 1870, the film positions itself at the very edge of the Old West mythology. “There were few of us left,” Silas reflects at one point. “Men beyond the law.” While the “last of his kind in a changing world” narrative is a familiar western trope, Maclean skilfully visualises it.

... as we walk in fields of gold...

… as we walk in fields of gold…

There is a strange recognisability to the world of Slow West, a sense that the world is not so radically removed from our own in any way that matters. In one delightfully bizarre sequence, Jay encounters a travelling German documentarian named Werner – a character who offers an uncanny prediction about the legacy of manifest destiny. At another point, Jay idly speculates that mankind will build a “railroad” right to the moon, and kill any natives unfortunate enough to live there. It might have been lucky the moon was uninhabited.

Even the little details feel familiar. At one point, Jay uses an old-fashioned changing room at the local “trading post”, a surprisingly relatable experience. (Give or take a bullet hole.) At the same time, it is demonstrated that shoplifting is an ancient artform. Particular mention must be made of Kim Sinclair’s production design on the film. Werner’s isolated caravan has what is clearly an old-fashioned sunroof, while the film contains any number of objects that are perfectly in keeping with the time (labelled tinned goods, a wheelchair) but seem incongruous in a western.

Waist not want not...

Waist not want not…

Using these elements, director James Maclean is able to create a wonderful visual metaphor for that classic western conflict – the question of where the brutality of manifest destiny ends and the triumph of modern civilisation begins, if a difference can be discerned between the two concepts. Slow West is Maclean’s first feature-length film, and it is a stunningly confident accomplishment. It is glorious and beautiful, distinctive and memorable. (Maclean is a fantastic visual storyteller, to the point that the climax involves one of the best visual puns of the year, if not the decade.)

Strong central performances breath life into Slow West. Michael Fassbender is typically reliable as Silas, the reliably conflicted bounty hunter who has his own secret agenda for helping Jay to cross the country. Fassbender is very much a classic leading man, to the point where he feels perfectly at home in the framework of a western. The character’s arc is fairly linear and clear (and perhaps entirely predictable), but Fassbender gives the character just the right mix of cynical detachment and underlying decency to sell it.

A most wanted man...

A most wanted man…

Ben Mendelsohn is just as reliable as the antagonistic Payne. Mendelsohn does creepy and mean almost effortlessly, slipping comfortably into the skin of a suitably larger-than-life and cartoonish antagonist. If Silas has a recognisable archetype and a clear arc, Payne is very much a western cliché dressed up in a spectacular fur coat and a charming central performance. That might not seem like enough to make the character work, but it is a spectacular fur coat and a charming central performance.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is cast as Jay, the wandering romantic hero at the heart of Slow West. Again, Jay is very much a familiar character. However, Maclean uses the character in a very shrewd fashion. The ending plays the themes of the film (and the genre) out to their logical conclusions. Smit-McPhee is suitably earnest and sincere in the role, cleverly playing into the character’s genuine optimism and idealism so that the film can develop those ideas to a very rational and organic end point.

Slow West is beautiful and evocative. It might not have anything particularly new to say, but it says it in a very striking fashion.

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