John Maclean’s SLOW WEST is foremost a showcase film. His first full-length directorial effort, the film seems to exist to demonstrate and validate Maclean’s cinematic acumen.
Described as a European road trip movie, it follows Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sixteen year-old Scottish aristocrat who journeys to America seeking his lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Along the way he is rescued then guided by Silas (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter who, in typical bounty hunter fashion, talks little and smiles even less. Their Western odyssey sees them encounter a host of strange, eccentric individuals, almost all of whom end up dead. For while SLOW WEST is beautifully made and contemplative, it isn’t sure what it actually wants to say.
It’s so obsessed with being a well-constructed, socially conscious film that it forgets to be a good one. The brutal, almost nihilistic depiction of the realities of frontier life suggest an existential quest of self-discovery framed against an indecipherable, uncaring universe. But this clashes with an unexpectedly potent sense of humor that borders on slapstick: two Native Americans smash into trees after trying to ride two horses that are tied together; a bottle labeled “salt” explodes and spills into a gunfight casualty’s bullet wound; Jay and Silas pause to laugh at the skeleton of a lumberjack crushed beneath a tree he was cutting like he was Wile E. Coyote. Maclean addresses his themes with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.
Silas provides sporadic narration where he morosely mumbles about love. Jay goes on ill-placed diatribes about there being more to life than mere survival. And in the film’s most curious scene, Jay spends the night with a writer who goes on long tangents about how terrible the White Man’s treatment of Native Americans are and how they will only survive in fiction where they will either be bastardized or villainized. To my great surprise, the character did not then stare directly into the camera for a good thirty seconds as the import and insight of his observations washed over the audience.