Slow West

Slow West
  • Country of production: UK / New Zealand
  • Year: 2015
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: John Maclean
  • Running time: 84 minutes

Slow West is a darkly comic fable starring Oscar-nominee MICHAEL FASSBENDER as a grizzled gunslinger escorting a young Scottish aristocrat (KODI SMIT-McPHEE) across America’s Wild West in search of the girl he loves. This movie is ‘inspired and inspiring... inviting you to imagine what life then and there might actually have felt like’ (Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice). ‘Impeccably crafted’ (Justin Chang, Variety), it has been likened to the films of the Coen brothers and looks likely to achieve cult status. It won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

It’s 1870, and hopeless romantic Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee, The Road, Let Me In, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) has travelled to Colorado in the hope of finding feisty crofter’s daughter Rose Ross (CAREN PISTORIUS). She and her father John (RORY McCANN, ‘The Hound’ in Game Of Thrones) have fled there following a tragic incident back home in Scotland. Like Jay, they are oblivious to the $2,000 price on their heads.

Cool under pressure, cigar-chomping Silas Selleck rescues Jay from gun-toting Union soldiers who come across him while they are chasing a Native American man. Jay can see that he is ill-equipped for survival in this turbulent land, and he pays Silas to secure his safe passage to Rose, unaware that Silas is secretly tracking the same quarry.

Along the way, they encounter a bizarre collection of wanderers and are dogged by an outlaw gang. Its leader, Payne, is played with insouciant menace by acclaimed Australian star BEN MENDELSOHN (Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond The Pines, Starred Up).

The taciturn Silas, played by the charismatic Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, 12 Years A Slave), finds his voice as the film’s eloquent narrator. His laconic commentary adds a reflective quality to this strange and surreal journey across the starkly beautiful landscape.

Slow West writer and director JOHN MACLEAN previously directed Fassbender in two short films, Man On A Motorcycle and Pitch Black Heist (which won a BAFTA in 2012). The assurance with which he maps Jay’s rite of passage belies the fact that this is his debut feature-length picture.

Maclean was formerly a member of Scottish rock group The Beta Band and his musical background is apparent in the film’s inherent lyricism.


Slow West


Everything in [John Maclean’s] film is touched by the daydream delusions of its hero, especially Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous cinematography, glazing a brutal chapter of American history with the elusive innocence of young love.

(David Ehrlich, Time Out New York)

Once upon a time in the West

Innocence is a core theme of Slow West: the innocence of its naive hero Jay and the loss of innocence of a world that is already fading from view. As Werner, the German anthropologist he encounters halfway through the film, memorably says: “In a short time, this will be a long time ago.”

Werner gives voice to the film’s conscience, noting that the Native Americans will be “viewed with nostalgia after we’ve destroyed them”. It is another lesson for Jay to absorb as bounty hunter Silas guides him through the wilderness towards the fugitives they both seek.

No country for a young man

But in this rugged territory dotted with desperados, innocence itself is a dangerous quality, a fact Silas patiently tries to teach Jay as he rescues him from one scrape after another. More than that, Jay’s innocent intentions have dire consequences: twice he brings violence right to Rose’s door, first in their native Scotland and then in Colorado, where he unwittingly leads not just Silas but a whole band of outlaws to her. In so many ways, the film suggests, innocence is dangerous.

A mature man nurturing a youth is a familiar theme from westerns such as The Searchers (1956) and Ride The High Country (1962). Here, the coming together of Jay and Silas represents a clash of the idealistic and the world-weary at a pivotal point in the USA’s history. “There’s much more to life than just survival,” Jay admonishes Silas at one point. “Yeah, there’s dying,” Silas replies.

If Fassbender seems to be modelled on Clint Eastwood, Smit-McPhee makes for ‘an especially otherworldly Jay. With his pale skin, wide, naive eyes and lanky silhouette, he’s a stranger – literally and figuratively’ (Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post).

Like Jay a Scot, writer-director Maclean brings his own fresh perspective to the Wild West. His frontier is a melting pot of immigrants, including Africans, Swedes and Irish.

The film, too, is an eclectic mix: ‘The long, hazy trail is a mix of eye-popping imagery, sudden violence and unexpected comedy’ (Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian), and these qualities give it a ‘distinctly Coen-esque flavour’ (Justin Chang, Variety).

The viewer is immersed in Jay’s kaleidoscopic odyssey. One extraordinary encounter leads to another; at one point he stumbles into an outlaw gang’s camp, where he listens to an absinthe-fuelled tale of gunfighter folk.

The juxtaposition of disparate elements makes for pathos, such as when our travellers come across two children whose parents have just died in an attempted hold-up. The film’s black humour also emphasises the brutality of life, literally applying salt to fresh wounds at one point.

This is no run-of-the-mill western. The story of a quest for love which takes a young man to an alien place inhabited by strange people, it’s ‘a yarn that is, in its own way, as fantastical as a fairy tale’ (Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post). It perhaps most closely resembles the surreal art films of the genre, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).

Shooting the western

Slow West is woven with references to cinema’s mythologising of the West. But Jay’s dislocation, the incongruity of what he observes and the vast backdrop against which the action is played out contribute to a feeling of detachment: a sense that the legend of the Wild West as usually depicted is indeed a myth.

It is a powerful message that resonates long after the film has ended with a Sergio Leone-style gun battle. ‘In a serene cream-coloured wheat field, hidden bounty hunters rise up and shoot. A crude pine cottage in a wide valley, where things end, is ridden with bullets, as if Maclean were saying, “so much for the little house on the prairie”’ (David D’Arcy, Screen International).


Slow West


Slow West

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