New westerns pass through the current cinematic landscape rarely, reminders of a beast that once covered the celluloid plains. 2015 is about to see a mini revival (including not one, but two westerns starring Kurt Russell) that while hardly restocking the herd will provide some quarry for hunting parties of oater fan.
The latest is Slow West the debut feature from former Beta Band musician John Maclean.
A simple plot introduces young Scottish gentleman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) making a perilous journey across the American frontier in the 19th century in search of his lost love. Quickly he falls prey to men of ill intent, but the timely intervention of a mysterious stranger rescues the slight wee laddie from a lonely death among the pines.
Jay’s saviour is Silas Selleck (Fassbender) an obvious rogue who proposes to act as his guide for a price. There are obviously complications. The boy’s beau Rose (Caren Pistorious) and her father fled Scotland under somewhat of a cloud, and Selleck has his own motives for in providing aid. As the miss-matched pair travel west their path is shadowed by outlaws led by Payne (Mendelsohn) – a former partner of Selleck’s in unspecified crimes.
Slow West arrives with a poster fair festooned with glowing quotes and as a Sundance prize winner. It’s fair to say that the film has been favourably received. Which puts me in the (honestly) unusual position of being extremely out-of-step with prevailing critical opinion. I don’t go out of my way to be contrary, but I found this to be an intensely irritating film.
Complaining about a meandering and sketchy plot in a film called Slow West would be churlish. Some may try to claim this as an example of ‘slow cinema’ and certainly the film’s rather obvious title extends an invitation. However, ‘slow’ need not equate to ‘dull’ and in this case it did for me, even at a slender 83 minutes the plot feels stretched thin. Treating plot as a simple tanning frame is fine, but there needs to be some hide to hang upon it. Slow West offers little more than a collection of under-developed ideas and generic elements that it either mishandles or approaches with contempt depending on how much charity one wants to extend to it.
As an aside, it’s time to stop claiming modern westerns are ‘revisionist’, in 1970? Sure. But that horse bolted long ago. Unforgiven, the last film that felt like it could lay claim to ‘revisionism’ is now 23 years old.
Slow West’s characters are ill-defined sketches. Smit-McPhee is an irritatingly passive protagonist with a Scottish accent as faint as the stubble Fassbender shaves off his chin in one of two curiously overplayed scenes of homoeroticism. Fassbender at least looks more at home in the landscape. But his cigar chomping outlaw is a poor Xerox of various Clint Eastwood characters. Even the normally magnetic Mendelsohn can’t generate much interest playing a villain whose sole defining characteristic seems to be wearing a fur coat. Most damagingly of all – given that their relationship is the driving force of the plot – Smit-McPhee and Pistorious have no discernible chemistry and are only seen together in flashbacks until late in the film.
Occasional shots of nature going about its business (ants crawling into a gun barrel) will likely produce a few tedious Malick comparisons but the most unsatisfactory thing about the film for me were its visuals. Lensed by Robbie Ryan, a supremely talented cinematographer, the film looks great when it steps back and drinks in the landscape (New Zealand standing in very well for the American frontier), but in dramatic scenes and especially interiors it looks like nothing more an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (a series also featured better female characters by the way). In particular there is such an overuse of split focus that the visual device feels like an affectation not a part of a coherent style – and a rather pointless affectation at that as the film is not shot in a scope ratio.
I felt the film suffered a lack of conviction throughout. Costumes are neatly pressed and look like they have been removed from dry cleaning bags moments before the director called ‘action’. Everyone is supernaturally clean, even the more grizzled Fassbender seems to have had dirt applied by Max Factor. The movie attempts some action, but any drive is deadened by Jed Kurzel’s monotonous and plodding score.
This being a western it is no surprise to find it ends with a reckoning of sorts, but the shoot-out is perfunctory and a third act dive into nihilistic absurdity is as half hearted as everything else (it’s like a Ladybird edition of Cormac McCarthy). If you want to see a picaresque and offbeat modern western with some genuine savagery, I would recommend Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man over this. That film had a very dry tone that gave equal time to comedy and horror, Slow West is full of moments where characters make speeches and tell stories that are clearly meant to be funny, but aren’t. The only moments where I found myself smirking were due to some comically over the top symbolism. A large knife and a gun are employed as blatant phallic symbols, and there is a really weird moment involving a jar of salt that wouldn’t have been out of place in Blazing Saddles.
For many people including myself, the western genre is as close to ‘pure cinema’ as one can get. So as a fan it is a shame when a fresh example misses the target as badly as Slow West.
Slow West is released in the UK on the 26th June