John Mclean’s Slow West is a unique, terrifically tense and compact entry into the Western movie genre. Our director understands the nihilism, cynicism and violence that made the Wild West tick and he in fact welcomes is as he tells the story of 16 year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is journeying across 19th century Colorado on a mission to find the girl he is deeply in love with, Rose played by Caren Pistorius.
Our two youth grew up together in their native Scotland and we become aware of the class dynamic surrounding their relationship which ostensibly keeps them apart despite Jay’s efforts and protests and it is through his actions and the ensuing chain of events that leads Jay to feel responsible for her exile in lawless America.
Jay clearly isn’t a fit for this world and rather fortuitously he comes into contact with Silas played by Michael Fassbender and in a matter of seconds we see how comfortable he is in this world of violence. Jay is well aware of his greenness and limitations and sees reason in having Silas give him secure passage to his destination in return for all the money he has. The duo embark on their journey spiced with chilling eruptions of violence and nothing but the expectation of violence at the end and we very soon become aware of more threatening motivations on Silas’ part.
There is the temptation to tag this film a coming of age tale and in some respect it is one – one of the harshest order – but Jay never allows himself to be moulded by the violence and dread around him and maybe it’s because Silas becomes a protector and father figure to him or maybe it’s simply because he has a good heart and his innocence and faith kind off rubs onto Silas in the way in Dan Evans rubs of Ben Wade in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, another terrific Western.
We never start to scoff at Jay’s naivety but instead find grace in his travails and faith in true love as Silas even comes to marvel at the resilience of the antithetical paradigm he carries. The story becomes increasingly gripping as more light is shed on its components and more characters enter the fray chief among them the fur coat clad Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) who brings a sense of languid menace I’ve come to associate him with. He has history with Silas and similar motivations for popping up near Jay along with his gang who will go on to star in a gloriously visceral shootout in the film’s finale.
For a film about the early American Midwest the melting pot of culture we find jumps up at us giving this film a feel unlike one I’ve experienced watching Westerns. Silas has Irish roots and Jay of course is Scottish and there’s that German family with cute blonde kids but my favourite of such encounters is early on when we come upon a group of African men which was a first for me and indeed almost surreal considering the genre and it appeared Silas shared my sentiments.
The African men are singing and playing drums and we learn their song is about love and Jay drops some nuggets of wisdom noting how love is universal like death, a thematic thread that comes up again when he is likened to Romeo by Rose in one of this film’s elegant flashbacks. The film is shot in New Zealand capturing a promise and splendour that is anchored in Jay’s character although harsh scenes of wretch pop up to remind us where we are.
Maclean tells a gripping story of love and violence in a real novelty for the Western genre and performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender (who are working together on X-Men Apocalypse) give this film the oomph that makes it absorbing watch.