Andrew Robertt, Ben Mendelsohn, Best of 2015, betrayal, bounty hunters, Caren Pistorius, cinema, class systems, dark humor, directorial debut, father-daughter relationships, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, flashbacks, greenhorns, Jay Cavendish, Jed Kurzel, John Maclean, Kodi Smit-McPhee, love story, Michael Fassbender, Movies, optimism vs pessimism, outlaws, Robbie Ryan, Rory McCann, sardonic tone, set in 1860s, Silas Selleck, Slow West, the Beta Band, the myth of the Old West, the taming of the Wild West, the Wild West, UK-New Zealand films, upper vs lower class, voice-over narration, Westerns, writer-director
There’s a point in writer-director John Maclean’s instantly classic feature-debut, Slow West (2015), that just may be one of the subtlest, most cutting bits of insight into the human condition that I’ve seen in some time. As they recover from the aftermath of a particularly chaotic, violent robbery attempt at a general store, 16-year-old Scottish greenhorn Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) looks past the stack of still-smoking corpses and right into the eyes of the dead robbers’ now-orphaned children. The children are impossibly young and innocent, their wide eyes seemingly unable to process the complete upending of their world, as they stand silently, gripping each others’ hands tight.
Feeling the instant onus of responsibility, Jay tells his travelling companion, hardened, sardonic gunfighter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), that they’ll just need to take the kids with them. It’s the only thing that makes sense, after all: Jay and Silas weren’t responsible for the death of the urchins’ parents but they would be complete monsters if they just left them there, on their own, to die. The kids can just hitch a ride with them as they proceed on their mission across the frontier wasteland, in search of Jay’s beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay is eager to help, his eyes bright and determined, until Silas take all the wind out of his sails with one off-handed response: “And then what?” Silas, you see, is nothing if not a realist and knows one very important fact above all else: the desire to do good just isn’t enough…without the ability to follow through, it’s all just stuff and nonsense…smoke and bullshit. He accepts the fact that Jay won’t: taking the kids with them would be as sure a death-sentence as leaving them there to rot, good intentions be damned.
It’s precisely this level of insight and intelligence that makes Slow West not only the best Western to come down the pike in years but also one of the very best films of this still-in-progress year. A mature, darkly humorous and gorgeously shot character study that has little use for easy stereotypes or empty action, Maclean’s debut is the perfect antidote for overwrought, multiplex inanity, the very antithesis to the gazillion-dollar superhero films that currently clog cinematic arteries. Featuring a fantastic cast, a brilliant script and images lovely enough to frame, Slow West should be a poignant reminder of a time when cinema didn’t need to rely on shouting and CGI to slug audiences right in the solar plexus.
Plotwise, Slow West is the very definition of streamlined efficiency. The aforementioned Jay Cavendish, the son of a Scottish lord and lady, travels to the untamed chaos of 1860s frontier America in pursuit of his beloved Rose and her father, John (Rory McCann), after a terrible accident finds the father and daughter forced to leave their native land one step ahead of a lynch mob. With only the vaguest idea of where to look for his beloved, Jay sets off across the plains, so wet-behind-the-ears that he practically leaves a puddle wherever he goes.
In no time, Jay finds himself in the crosshairs of a group of miscreants hunting a fleeing Native American, one short step from getting his naive brains blown out all over his citified duds. At the last-minute, however, a mysterious gunman appears and blasts everyone but Jay straight to hell: this is the silent, contemplative Silas, a character who would’ve been played by none other than Clint Eastwood were this about four decades older. Silas knows that Jay is an accident waiting to happen, a plucky little chicken traipsing his way through an entire country full of hungry foxes, and he offers to be his bodyguard, in exchange for a little cold, hard cash. Jay heartily agrees, although he’s completely unaware of the other half of this particular coin: there’s a huge bounty out on Rose and her father (dead or alive) and Silas wants Jay to, unwittingly, lead him right to a much bigger payday.
As the two ride across the Old West, they encounter an almost endless variety of outlaws, wandering musicians, grizzled bounty hunters and foreign immigrants, each individual following their own particular path to salvation or destruction. Chief among these unique characters is Silas’ former gang leader, the extraordinarily lethal Payne (Ben Mendelsohn): Payne and his gang also have their sights set on Rose and her father and certainly won’t mind burying an old colleague, if they have to. As Jay and Silas continue to bond, they get ever closer to the beloved Rose, albeit with some suspiciously gunfighter-shaped shadows following behind. Will Silas be able to overcome his patently cynical nature in order to help his young charge? Will Jay ever reunite with Rose? Will true love really save the day or it just a myth as fanciful and false as Jay’s sunny view of this “brave new world”?
First off, let’s make one thing clear: Slow West is just about as perfect a film (certainly as perfect a full-length debut) as I can recall seeing, the kind of movie that hits you immediately and keeps you rapt right through the closing credits. From the genuinely stunning cinematography (if Robbie Ryan doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, I’ll punch a hole in a wall) to the often whimsical score to the utterly thrilling action setpieces, Slow West is one exquisitely crafted piece of art. Add in a truly smart script, full of great dialogue and surprising doses of humor (the scene where Jay and Silas come upon the skeletal body of a logger crushed beneath a tree, ax still in hand, is one of the single greatest sight gags ever) and one of the best casts in some time and I’ll be honest: I can’t really find much fault here. At all.
Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are absolutely perfect as the unlikely partners, each playing off the other in ways both expected and truly surprising. The aforementioned Eastwood reference is not stated lightly: as someone who worships at the altar of everything Eastwood (at least through the ’90s), I found plenty of nice parallels between Fassbender’s performance, here, and my squint-eyed childhood hero. His is a low-key performance, as much about what’s not said as what is. While I’m usually not the biggest fan of cinematic voice-overs, Silas’ narration throughout is an integral part of the perfection, leading us to one of the most perfect endings I’ve seen in some time.
For his part, Smit-McPhee finds the perfect balance between Jay’s inherent helplessness and the steely determination that allowed him to make this dangerous trek in the first place. At any point, the character of Jay could have slipped into either obnoxious comic relief (look at the silly Scottish wimp!) or complete irrelevancy (why focus on this yahoo when you’ve got badass Silas over there?). It’s to both Smit-McPhee and Maclean’s tremendous credits, however, that Jay is always sympathetic: we want him to succeed because he seems like a genuinely good, hopeful and positive person. This pie-in-the-sky optimism is absolutely critical to the film’s underlying themes and Slow West wouldn’t be nearly the overwhelming success it is without his able participation. My advice? Get Fassbender and Smit-McPhee into another film, stat!
Like the best films of Jim Jarmusch, however, the supporting cast gives as good as the leads do. Pistorius is perfect in a relatively small role, imbuing her character with such a co-mingled sense of joy and unbearable sorrow that she makes every second of her screen time count. Mendelsohn, who might be the very definition of an actor who really needs no introduction, absolutely shines as the gang leader, turning in one of the coolest, most fun and vile villains to hit the big-screen since the glory days of Peckinpah films. In fact, much of Slow West recalls Peckinpah’s work in style and theme, if not necessarily unmitigated bloodshed. With his odd fur coat, droll manner and reptilian coldness, Payne is an instantly iconic creation: my only complaint, here, is that we don’t get nearly enough of him.
Production-wise, Slow West is at the absolute top of its game, no two ways about it. What really tips the film into classic territory, however, is how smart and insightful it is. This isn’t the stereotypical Western, full of flinty men blowing other flinty men to Kingdom Come. In many ways, Slow West is about the disparity between intent and action, between wanting a better world and actually doing something about it. Time and time again, Silas points out the difference between his and Jay’s personal philosophies: Jay sees the Wild West as a place of endless promise, full of hard-working people doing their best to overcome the elements (and themselves), carving out their own spot in an unforgiving landscape, while Silas sees the frontier as a no-man’s-land full of outlaws, dust, murder and drudgery. To accept Jay’s worldview is to invite absolute destruction, as far as Silas is concerned: let your guard down just once and you’re wormfood. To accept Silas’s worldview, however, is equally destructive: if no one is good, if no one can change and if the capacity for peaceful coexistence is a myth, what, exactly, do we have to live for?
As smart as it is beautiful, Slow West is an absolute treasure, the kind of film that the Coens thought they were making with their True Grit (2010) remake, only to fall short of the mark. As apt to make you chuckle as stare in awe, Maclean has established himself as one of the most exciting new filmmakers operating right now: the fact that the writer-director is only on his first film (after a pair of shorts) is even more extraordinary. The fact that Maclean comes to us not through the film world but the music world is that much more astounding: erstwhile music fans might recognize him as one of the driving forces behind Scottish indie heroes The Beta Band.
To restate the very obvious: I absolutely loved Slow West. From the craft to the message to the absolute perfect synthesis of form and meaning, Maclean’s debut is nothing short of a revelation. At 84 minutes, there isn’t one wasted scene, shot or motion, no sense of pandering, hand-holding or dumbing-down. This is cinema at its very best, the kind of movie that makes you feel glad to be alive. As a lifelong movie fan, I look for films like this all the time but it’s like finding a needle in a field of haystacks. Good thing, then, that Maclean is all needles and no hay: when I’m looking for a quality film in the future, I have a pretty good idea where to look. If you enjoy quality movies, too, I suggest you do the same thing.