“Once upon a time, Jay Cavendish travelled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America, to find his love.”
So begins Slow West, the directorial debut of Irish filmmaker John Maclean, an opening more akin to a reflective novel perhaps, than a modern western. Having garnered the presence and gravitas of Michael Fassbender into his cast and with the experience of his own time in America inspiring him, Maclean aimed to have a crack at the modern western, a genre too often weighed down by tips of the hat to the past and overly violent story-telling without rhyme or reason. It’s a hard thing to pull off in a cinematic age where the western is a niche genre, far away from the era defying giant it once was. Could Maclean, Fasbender and the rest of the cast pull Slow West together?
Scottish immigrant Jay (Kodi Smit-Macphee) is a naive youngster out of his depth, travelling westward across America in 1870. Saved from a premature death by wanderer Silas (Fassbender), Jay reluctantly employs the outlaw as a guide in his search for Rose (Caren Pistorius), the girl he loves who fled Scotland because of an accident of his own fault. Together, the two men face the dangers of the west: rapidly changing weather, Native ambushes and the attentions of ruthless bounty hunter Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
In the opening line replicated above, Maclean wraps up many of the themes he wants to explore in Slow West: the environment as a personification of country, the story of the immigrant wanderer in a foreign land, and the quest to find love, as inevitable as finding death. The modern western, albeit filmed in New Zealand mostly, becomes the canvass for the tale, and where better than the “Old West”, to show that “baking heart”, that melting pot of cultures and ideas, that land of opportunity and death, or, as one character puts “dreams…and toil”?
But beyond all of those deeper ideas, Slow West works on a much more basis story-telling level, in the relationship between Jay and Silas, apprentice and master, who both find things that they badly need from the other. It is a well worn tale for obvious reasons, and in Slow West we find an enjoyable retelling of it.
Jay is this hopelessly romantic individual, delighting in his role as “Romeo” in his flashbacks with the ever looming Rose, blundering about one of the most dangerous parts of the Earth in a quest to find her, without ever really considering whether the journey is the right one to take. His idealism and hopefulness are tested throughout, and but for Silas he would be a dead man many times over. In Jay we can see boyish enthusiasm, the power of infatuation and the darkness of innocence corrupted. He’s an archetype in many ways, but it’s not hard to have sympathy for him, even if it is tempered with the realisation of his increasing delusion.
Silas, the mysterious and mostly silent outlaw, is a different kettle of fish. He’s supposed to be, clearly, an older, more jaded and more cynical version of Jay, the man who was an outsider a long time ago and has since become hardened to the land and its perils. His journey is summed up simply but movingly as the choice between living and surviving: of merely existing in this endless journey from place to place, or of finding something to exist for, a drive that he lost some time in a dark and blood soaked past.
Both men then find what they need in the other. Jay finds protection, guidance and a degree of plain talking from Silas that is required if he is survive and grow. Silas finds a reminder of the man he used to be and a man he might still yet be. Slow West is at its best when this relationship, starting from frosty roots but growing into something approaching affection, is being evolved and demonstrated onscreen. There is a masculinity to it, a modern kind, that I found endearing, two men in equally bad places, discovering that problems shared are problems halved.
Slow West isn’t so good in other moments. Like any debut director, Maclean sometimes takes his production far too seriously, weighing it down with “artsy” moments of symbolism and incomprehensible allegory. Little mini-episodes take place throughout Jay and Silas’ journey, unconnected to the main plot but meant to flesh out the experience of what is a rather short film, clocking in at an efficient 84 minutes. But it could have been a little bit shorter. Meeting the black singing band, the diversion with a documentarian who shares more than a name with one Werner Herzog, and Jay stumbling into an unexpected camp of bounty hunters are all moments that seem more like random ideas that Maclean wanted to put into his film, as opposed to vital parts of the narrative that Slow West cannot do without. Maclean, while having numerous short features to his credit, isn’t Tarantino, and doesn’t have the acumen to pull this sort of quasi-episodic nature off as well as he could have. Maclean blends in dark comedy at will in these moments, and some of it is quite funny, but you can never escape the sense that these segments are killing time.
Then again, if the film got any shorter its central antagonist, the remorseless bounty hunter named, rather unsubtly, Payne, might have even less to do. Payne reminded me greatly of the villain from last years The Retrieval, a film in a somewhat similar time period with a premise that could draw parallels. Both films made the choice to settle for a rather flat bad guy in order to focus on the primacy of the central male relationship, a trade-off that pays dividends in one way but leaves Slow West feeling a bit flat in others. Payne is a rather mysterious nobody really, a bad man with a past history connected to Silas, that is barely ever elaborated upon. He looks rather ridiculous in the fur coat too, and that kind of garment is a sure sign of a bad character, one the story-teller is content to make look distinctive, as opposed to creating an actually distinctive character.
But Slow West makes up for it in other ways, primary among them being the presentation of the west itself, both near to the traditional image, and very far from it at the same time. Here is the immigrant west, a place populated by Irish, Scots, English and Polish, as well as by Native Americans and the more recent kind, all mixing and smashing into one another, rich and poor, God-fearing and God-hating all together, very far from the WASP-ish feeling that so many of the more classic western offerings had in their casts. And through the camera, Maclean gives us a good sense of the vastness of the American West, from the starry sky above to the wide open plains to the white-capped peaks that dominate so much of the background.
But more than any of that in the creation of the right kind of ambiance is the use of violence as a story-telling crux. Maclean, a gust at the screening I attended at Dublin’s IFI, was open about how careful he wanted to be with his use of violence. In the best tradition of the more effective western – and film generally – Maclean makes good on this score. Slow West is a violent film, but every moment of blood being shed has a larger purpose in the narrative, to tell us something about the character doing or enduring the violence. The Old West is a brutal place, with backstabbers and ambushers around every turn and under every rock, and that reality is made clear. But Slow West is not a film about violence, or even a violent film, and what death and destruction is meted out by its character is finely catalogued. In fact, the film’s final shots are as clear a message on the weight of death and the violence sometimes perpetrated to achieve it that I have ever seen in film, and certainly leaves Slow West in a fascinating place as the credits roll.
The film is also a credit with its flashbacks. It would be a disservice to go too much into the meat and bones of them here (see below if you want to know more) but they were well presented and placed in the larger narrative. It suffices to say that they are flashbacks that reveal important elements of the story at the right times, changing our perception of Jay, and later Rose, in important ways. What could easily have been a traditional love story evolves into something a bit more grandiose in these moments, more complex in its relationship between the Knight errant and the object of his desire.
While stumbling narratively along the way with a few too many sidepaths, Slow West, in defiance of its title, actually moves along to an action-packed finale fairly quickly, to the extent that you might almost be sort of surprised to see the film come to a conclusion. A sense of inevitable tragedy looms over the entire film, and not just because of the physical dangers that are very much evident, but because of an inescapable feeling that Jay’s mission might not have the happy ending he is fixated on. But that climax is still a decent one, full of emotional weight and fraught with a certain sombre kind of tension, as the audience awaits an inevitable disaster, be it physical or emotional. The ending is not all that you might expect, but satisfying and thought-provoking nonetheless, a worthy conclusion to a journey through this unique landscape.
It is only here that the Rose character really comes into her own, Slow West’s only female role of any note, and the film certainly won’t be passing any Bechdel tests. But while it firmly places itself in that genre of tale where the woman is a prize, it largely subverts those expectations in some ways, which make Slow West better than it might have been. Besides, it is one of those films that is so overtly about masculine relationships and desires, that I feel compelled to forgive any lack of focus on the opposite sex.
Maclean has assembled a small but committed cast for his project, with Smit-Macphee stepping into the lead Jay role with aplomb, bringing a soft-spoken sympathetic quality to the Scottish immigrant that is moving and relatable. Jay is in perpetual turmoil over his quest, his company and his actions, and Smit-Macphee illustrates this very well with the quivering lip, the stunted delivery, and that heart-breaking look in the eyes, as an idealistic young man faces some very un-idealistic times.
But he pales next to Fassbender, which is a frequent problem for people starring alongside him. I’ve written before about how Fassbender is like an actor from the Golden Age of swaggering cool reborn, and in becoming part of a western, Fassbender just seems to play into that more and more. His Silas is a quiet individual, though not like Jay: Fassbender is a master at portraying confidence, competence and presence without ever speaking a word, from the moment he snatches Jay’s gun off the younger man in one of the opening scenes, to his chillingly calm directions as Jay prepares to shoot down someone threatening their trip. Fassbender may not get to more overtly emote in Slow West – a brief moment of laughter after nearly getting shot is a notable exception – but his is still a powerful performance, from an actor at the height of his powers.
The supporting cast is uniformly good too. Pistorius’ Rose only really comes into her own in the last act, but creates a sweet, charming young woman, the attractions of which are obvious in body and character. Ben Mendholson’s Payne only has a few scenes of note, but does manage to give off that sense of quiet menace that is required, though the character could have been so much more. Of what remains, Rory McCann is a nice addition as Rose’s put upon father, quiet but powerful.
Maclean’s debut direction is spectacular enough in sections. Tight, simple camerawork makes up the bulk of what is focused on the principals, but it is in encompassing the wide open spaces and sky of the American West that Maclean really triumphs, driving home visually the immensity of this setting, the wondrousness of its beauty, contrasting nicely with the terror of the blood shedding that frequently takes place there. Maclean takes his time with many shots of this nature, happy to let his camera follow Jay and Silas through forests, plains of crops and dusty mountain valleys without much dialogue, letting the scenery do its job. I wouldn’t say that Slow West is anything special in its plot-specific shots, though there are some grimly done moments of centring or perspective shots where lines get blurred that stand out, as Jay and Silas repeatedly confront the threat of violence, or the aftermath of violence.
At times the cinematography branches out into stranger territory – the closing gunfight, where bad guys’ heads pop out of a wheat field like a deadly game of Whack A Mole, a flashback with the wrong voices dubbed in, or when literal salt gets rubbed into literal wounds during an emotionally trying moment – that seems positively cartoonish. But, in a way that more than one reviewer has noted matches up closely with a kind of Coen Brothers style, this visual humour fits into Slow West, its black comedy accentuating the peril that the characters are facing.
Maclean’s script is very limited, but in a good way. It takes a while for Jay and Silas to even talk to each other as men, and the viewer is left to chew on that opening line and its many thematic nods for a while. When Silas utters early on “Let’s drift”, in that way that only someone with Fassbender’s expertise and charisma could make work, he means it in more ways than one, as Slow West contents itself with only brief moments of wordplay. Jay and Silas do eventually create a good back and forth between them, particularly as Jay grows into a more capable individual during the journey. But even then, the best script moments are still the simplest, perhaps none better than Silas’s simple instruction to “Breath…in and out…breath” as Jay is forced into committing a terrible act of bloodletting, it not immediately clear if Silas is even addressing Jay.
Also of note is the wordsmithing for the flashback sequences, again simple, but again very strong at getting the central point across. Rose doesn’t have all that many lines in the course of Slow West, but they all have a weight and a deeper meaning to them, from her description of Jay as “her Romeo” – not all that it entails – to an unexpected but somewhat intriguing declaration to a character late-on: “Until civilisation comes”.
Musically, Slow West is also doing fine work with simplicity over complexity, the film marked by a single recurring guitar driven motif, which is desperately melancholy in structure and sound, the perfect accompaniment to the action on screen that, for me, invoked the very best of Greg Edmondson from something like Firefly.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
–Slow West’s “love” plot progresses nicely, with it becoming obvious very fast that poor deluded Jay is trapped in what some would term “the friendzone”, that terrible place where a person, usually a man, has greater feelings for another than they do for them. It adds something very important to the naive quality of Jay that he has mindlessly pursued Rose across an ocean and a continent, despite the plain fact that, put bluntly, she just isn’t into him that way, and not just because of their different places in the Scottish social structure. Rose is happy to be friends with this boy, but from the moment she removes her hands from his in that beach scene, it’s plain that nothing will ever come of Jay’s infatuation.
-Long before he reaches Rose, Jay dreams of her and Silas living together in an idealised home, with Jay himself seemingly taking on the form of baby that the two are bringing up. The moment says all that we need to know about Jay’s real desires, which seems to be someone to take care of him, as opposed to someone to share his life with.
-The scene in the trading post, where Silas talks an unseen Jay into pulling the trigger on a desperate woman out to rob them, was one of the most masterful in the film in terms of visual direction and script, as the viewer realises at just the right moment that Silas’ words are not being directed at the gun-toting woman, but the young man she isn’t aware of.
-Jay pulling the trigger there was an inescapable outcome of the situation, and I sort of liked that he doesn’t spend the rest of the film moping or gnashing his teeth over it, a sign that he has already moved into an area of the world where judgement is a more finicky thing. The outcome of the violence in the form of the two orphaned children was effective as a visual reminder that every action has a cost, though I felt it odd then that they kept popping back up, all the way to a rather sentimental ending.
-“Werner”, whose Herzog inspiration was openly acknowledged by the director at the screening I attended, was an odd one alright. A seemingly decent man in an indecent time and place, who turns out to be as much an opportunist as the next, but why even fed and warm Jay in the first place then? There was something comically grim about the way that whole thing ended though, with Jay lefty baffled by a piece of paper declaring “West” to be in a certain direction, that he has already conspired to lose.
-The brief sidestep to look at the log cutter who has somehow managed to let a tree collapse on top of him was a good one. Maclean seemingly wanted to create a certain sense that, in the Wild West, bad things will happen to uncaring people, whose fates will simply be a recurring lesson for all others who pass by. Even the usually horrified Jay can only laugh.
-Kalani Queypo, the Native who is an apparent friend of Rose and her father, was an interesting late addition to the cast. Maclean clearly implies a romantic connection between him and Rose, without it being completely obvious, and that reality is a heart-breaking one for Jay, and the audience in a way.
-The travelling preacher who turns out to be a sniper of a sort was another antagonist who could have done with some fleshing out. In the end, he’s just a distinct looking bad guy as opposed to a distinctive bad guy.
-In fact, you can pretty much say that for all of Payne’s crew too, who might be fascinating characters in their own right, we just never get the chance to find out.
-The ending is one of transformation. Silas leaves behind his reckless cynicism to try and save Rose and her father, inspired by Jay. Jay’s love-fuelled quest ends in bemusingly tragic circumstances, an actual container of salt falling into the Rose-inflicted bullet wound as he sees her in an intimate moment with Kotori. Rose takes an apparent next step on an actual romantic relationship, remembering Jay fondly but never returning the feelings he had for her.
-The actual ending is, as stated, somewhat sentimental, a little too neat, with Silas and Rose taking in the orphaned children and building a home together. But that seems to be the result of Jay’s unintended sacrifice, and the inspiration he provides to both of them.
-The final shots, brief glimpses at the corpse of every character we have seen die in the story, had that heavy weight of remembrance to them. If nothing else, Slow West wants its audience to consider the actual effects of violence, and how big a body count is routinely left in films of this nature.
In some ways, Slow West is, as per the title of Jay’s guide to the area, an “Ode to the West”, a film as focused on presenting the directors vision of this iconic time and place in terms of visuals and character make-up and ambiance, as it is with its actual plot. This results in some cutaway moments and overly-pretentious filmmaking, that are the classic signs of an a director too inexperienced to have total confidence in the plot he is trying to bring to fruition. The resulting deficiencies due to a lack of time, not least the rather shallow antagonist, are obvious.
But Slow West is truly enjoyable in most other ways. The plot is entertaining and engaging. The performances from the cast are top-notch, most notably Fassbender, who just fills up the part of Silas with all of what is required. The script is restrained, but does a brilliant job. The direction is good, and the music is a wonderful addition. There isn’t anything positive about this film that couldn’t be described as “simple, but strong” really, and that is high praise. Maclean creates a wonderful world that you want to step into, that makes you want to follow the repeated catchphrase of the Silas character. In this baking heart of America, let’s drift. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Film4).