8 April 2015 | Ser_Stephen_Seaworth
The Western love child of Wes Anderson and the Coens.
The first thing I noticed about Slow West is how much better Michael Fassbender's American accent has improved, especially in comparison to his drawl in 12 Years a Slave. There are still traces of his foreign heritage in his voice, but he's got the cadence and timbre of it down-pat here, which is certainly a boon here, as he also adopts the role of narrator in writer/director John Maclean's tough yet quietly funny romp through the frontier.
Why is it tough? Because Maclean doesn't hesitate in showing that the West was unforgiving; people die with almost alarming suddenness and violence, and not a single one of them gets a languishing death soliloquy. It's all a great shock to young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit- McPhee), a Scottish émigré who ventured out West not to seek fame or fortune, but rather the love of his life, who fled their homeland after an accident Jay feels responsible for. Jay, the upper-crust scion of a well-to-do family, is unprepared for the harshness of the climate, and the opening credits have barely begun to roll before he's looking down the barrel of a gun. It's only by the grace of God and the quick reflexes of gunslinger Silas (Fassbender) that Jay gets out unscathed.
Silas, a gruff and opportunistic sort, takes the job of "chaperoning" Jay through the territory, ostensibly to make an easy buck—but there are truer, darker intentions lurking within him. See, Silas is a bounty hunter, and his target happens to be one John Ross (Rory McCann) and his daughter Rose (Caren Pistorius), the latter of whom happens to be Jay's inamorata. Neglecting to mention that his beloved is a wanted fugitive with a $2,000 price tag on her head, Silas tries to instill Jay with enough street smarts to get him through the journey. Unfortunately, some lessons take more quickly and harshly than others.
And yet, the film has a light touch of humor to it that, when paired with the frank grimness of the West, works wonders. Maclean peppers the film with sublime sight gags and, in one instance, an outlaw's recollection of a former colleague's disappointment at not having his own wanted poster that could've come right out of the works of Mark Twain. Maclean's film also owes a debt, I feel, to True Grit; the two films feel like they could be spiritual twins.
Unlike most of the genre, Slow West doesn't revel in the wide-open Leone-esque expanses of the frontier. Instead, it's squared off in a narrow frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, giving it a more intimate flair. Nevertheless, the film is quite lovely to look at. The color palette is striking and, if I didn't know better, I'd have thought Wes Anderson had decided to saddle up for a Western. Certain shots pop, like young Jay wading through the ashen remains of an Indian camp or of a character being abandoned in the desolate prairie with nothing but his longjohns and a blanket.
Smit-McPhee, quickly proving himself to be able to transition from his child actor years to adulthood, stands his ground admirably in the part. He also has a skill with silent comedy; most of the audience's guffaws came at Jay's befuddled reactions. Fassbender, who I feel works best when he isn't trying to crank up the intensity, feels very relaxed, giving perhaps his best performance in years. The bulk of the film focuses on just these two actors, although occasionally they share screen time with some colorful characters, including Ben Mendelsohn as a wily, cigar-chewing outlaw. Mendelsohn has been a personal casting choice for a Blood Meridian adaptation, and this would make a hell of an audition reel for it.
Despite its humor, Slow West does have an air of solemnity to it. There is the air of lost love, and not just in Jay's desperate struggle to reunite with Rose. There is also a somber sense of loss for that world. In one crucial scene, Jay meets a German anthropologist out in the wilderness, who openly laments the oncoming extinction of the native tribes in the area and the damages of white expansionism. At one point, the man smiles forlornly and says, "In a short time, this will seem like a long time ago." That line, more than any other moment in the film, lingers in the mind.