Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Review: "Slow West"
“In a short time, this will be a long time ago.”
“Slow West” is a paean to the Old West: its limitless opportunities and blood-soaked reality. It’s a story of hope and true love… except many people go to early graves along with their hopes. And love takes many forms, but not always the one desired.
Written and directed by John Maclean in his feature film debut, the film was shot in New Zealand and features Brits, Germans, South Africans and Aussies in the main roles. It’s a vision of the American West as seen through the dream of foreigners, and ambles between sharp verisimilitude and a trance-like wonder.
This is the sort of movie in which a Scottish boy riding through 1870s Colorado comes across three Congolese men sitting by the side of the trail singing in their native tongue, and none of them seem out of place.
At a taut 84 minutes, it’s minimalist storytelling where the actors sketch out their characters from just a few lines of dialogue and how they act – usually under deadly duress. Maclean sets up main characters and antagonists chasing each other on the plains, but wanders freely between their camps. He seems as interested in the greybeard bandit as the winsome young hero.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is pensive and naïve as the boy, Jay Cavendish, a minor nobleman who left Scotland to chase his lady love, a commoner named Rose. She’s played by Caren Pistorius, who commands our attention in her few scenes. Rose and her father (Rory McCann) fled their home a year ago because of some unnamed trouble; now Jay is following, riding a horse all alone across the land with death at every turn.
What Jay doesn’t know is that there’s a $2,000 reward for the pair, and that attracts the attention of some fearful types – men like Silas, a bounty hunter when he needs to be and an outlaw otherwise. He’s played by Michael Fassbender, who wears the cowboy rig like he was born to it.
Silas is an amoral “brute,” in Jay’s words, but he agrees to chaperone the greenhorn for money. It soon becomes clear that Silas is hoping Jay will lead him right to his quarry, but he takes a shine to the earnest lad.
He’s a man of few words, rarely responding to Jay’s jabbering with more than “Sure, kid” or “Let’s drift.” He’s been around and seen things in his rambling life; there are dark deeds in his past -- and probably in his future, too.
“Survival ain't just how to skin a jackrabbit. It's knowing when to bluster and when to hush. When to take a beating, and when to strike,” Silas says.
Others are on parallel journeys, such as an enigmatic man in black who wears a white collar and carries a curiously long suitcase. Then there’s Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), an outlaw legend who leads a large gang of throw-offs. They track Silas and the boy, patiently, waiting.
It’s a feast for the senses. The cinematography by Robbie Ryan has a bleak beauty to it, and Jed Kurzel’s musical score trips easily between jaunty and mournful.
“Slow West” may be puzzling to some people, with its mix of worship and irony for the Western genre. I found it a haunting vision, darkness and light sliding across the far horizon in equal measure.