John Maclean’s debut film Slow West is, of course, a Western—it’s in the title and in the plot, in which a young man and a grizzled bandit strike through America’s post-Civil War frontier in search of a fugitive young woman. But it also has the spirit of a romance novel, complete with sweeping landscapes and an achingly naive protagonist who has travelled all the way from Scotland to follow his heart. Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an untested but bold traveler, searching for his lady love Rose (Caren Pistorius) who fled to America with her father after a tragic accident made her a fugitive. Naïve to the punishing road ahead, Jay contracts retired bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) to help him find her.
Slow West could easily turn punishing, like many a post-modern Western. One of Smit-McPhee’s earliest screen roles was as The Boy in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road, which took the grit and misery of the westward trek to its logical extreme by setting it in a dystopian future. Slow West is salted with necessary cynicism—early on it’s clear to Silas, and the viewer, that Jay’s interest in Rose is very one-sided—and features Ben Mendelsohn as Payne, a brooding, cold-blooded bounty hunter also on Rose’s trail. But the film never loses sight of the bizarre humor of Jay’s situation (trekking through the wilderness looking for a girl who barely remembers him) and the real charm of his friendship with Silas, even though Fassbender’s dialogue consists mostly of growls.
Essentially, Slow West knows Jay is a bit of a fool—but what better place to go than the Wild West for a fool looking to be a hero? Jay enters the first scene clutching a book called West, Ho! a traveller’s guide to the frontier that Silas dismisses and advises him to toss. But Jay can never quite let go of his heroic notions, even as he’s confronted with the atrocities that underpin them. Maclean’s imagery ranges from the truly bleak (Jay comes across Native Americans being eradicated for money by former soldiers) to the darkly comic (the skeletal remains of another frontiersman, crushed by a tree he chopped down). The landscapes (actually shot in New Zealand) are gorgeous, and Maclean frames his scenes beautifully, but there’s never much doubt that Silas’ bitter outlook on the world is the right one.
None of the leads delivers a unexpected performance, but instead builds on the strengths of past roles. Fassbender turns on his icy stare, and in the rare event that he speaks it’s usually to tell Jay what he’s doing wrong. Smit-McPhee lends an otherworldly, almost alien quality to Jay’s naiveté, as if his character has wandered onscreen from another world. As the bounty hunter, Mendelsohn again captures the kind of bristling, fearsome menace he’s excelled at since his breakout role in 2010’s Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom. But the true surprise is Pistorius, who even as a newcomer manages to invest her character Rose with steeliness and warmth in comparatively little screen time; when the film shifts its focus to her late in the story, the handoff feels deft and natural.
As any Western should, Slow West crescendos into a bravura shootout between all the involved parties, and it’s as gorgeous, nihilistic, and brutally sad as the rest of the film, including one sight gag that has to be seen to be appreciated. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Jay’s journey does not end in the picture-book way he might imagine, but the film also avoids the easy trope of denouncing his heroism as mere idiocy. Silas spends the whole film rolling his eyes at Jay’s idealism, but the subtle emotional connection that develops between the pair (over a thankfully brief 84-minute running time) feels well-earned.
It might seem lazy for a new director to announce himself with a Western—there’s nearly a century of filmic imagery to borrow from, and even more idealized history to explore and push back against. But Maclean has accomplished the rare feat of producing a Western that feels fresh without thumbing its nose at the genre; this variation on a tale told many times nonetheless packs an emotional punch and has a long, thoughtful view of history. At Slow West’s conclusion, Maclean quickly cuts between the prone, bloody bodies of everyone slain in the film in pursuit of love or money. The violence of the era is easy to accept and dismiss; the senselessness, less so.