A Review of John Maclean’s Slow West: A Visually Striking and Darkly Humorous Offbeat Western

Slow West Review

Film: Slow West
Director: John Maclean
Primary Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius,
US Release Date: 15 May 2015

Before I dive into my review of Slow West, allow me to make a confession: I don’t really know much about Westerns. Sorry about that. I know that the Western is a quintessentially American genre, and I will try to start watching more of them, but there are a lot of movies in the world, so that might take a while. At the moment, the only Western’s I can clearly remember watching are Django Unchained and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Fordwhich may (or may not) be evident in the review below.

John Maclean’s Slow West
A young Scottish man (boy?) by the name of Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) is travelling across Colorado in search of Rose Ross (Pistorious), who he is in love with. Rose and her father (Rory McCann) were both forced to flee Scotland after a certain “accident” and are now fugitives hiding out in the American West.

Jay is a naive and quixotic, and he is clearly out of place in the unforgiving West. Before long, he encounters a group of Union officers, who are chasing a Native American. Before any of the officers can do anything to Jay, an outlaw named Silas (Fassbender) shows up—with his face covered up to his eyes and his gun pointed at the officer. Silas quickly shoots the officer, and then (for reasons that become apparent later) he agrees to escort Jay on his journey.

Though uneven in spots, Slow West makes for a promising, well-crafted, and entertaining debut from writer/director John Maclean. Slow West is a film with personality. The film is well-edited and is gorgeously shot, but it is its point of view, its particular sense of humor, and its presentation of mankind that will impact (and amuse) viewers the most strongly. Given the fact that the film is a Western and was released in 2015, some may be inclined to accuse Slow West of being a little late to the party, but it brings something to the table, and it’s worth waiting for. 

How It All Shakes Out
Slow West is beautifully shot and features some stunning scenery as well as some truly striking compositions. The landscapes featured in the film are enough to justify the price of paying to see it on a big screen. Though it’s a Western, Slow West was shot in New Zealand, which may have something to do with slight otherworldly feeling that the film possesses. There are memorable images all throughout the film, but some that occur near the end are particularly strong. Such images aren’t just impressive or beautiful—they are also distinct, and they are an integral part of the film’s overall personality.

Slow West is also well-edited. At just 84 minutes, it moves pretty quickly, and is packed with series of memorable moments. While its plot and characters do meander a bit, the film doesn’t drag (there is a big difference between wandering and running out of steam). 

While none of the performances in Slow West are exceptionally remarkable, there is plenty for fans of Fassbender to enjoy. As Silas, he gives the sort of performance that viewers have come to expect from him. His role in the film is hardly his most challenging or surprising to date, but he makes for a good outlaw all the same. There’s something inherently threatening but magnetic about Fassbender, and such qualities lend themselves well to Maclean’s script. 

As Payne, Mendelsohn also gives the type of performance that viewers have come to expect from him, but that is hardly a bad thing—he is dark, imposing, mysterious, and wild. His part in Slow West is not an especially large one, but Mendelsohn’s talent for making an impact in a short amount of time is as clear here as it’s ever been. 

Next to the likes of Fassbender and Mendelsohn, Smit-McPhee seems to falter a bit. While it’s clear that Maclean intends to establish a certain degree of contrast between Jay and Silas, that alone does not quite justify McPhee’s lack of presence. On paper, Jay is Slow West‘s lead; on screen, he doesn’t quite live up to some of the characters around him.

Slow West‘s greatest strength is in its script (and in the creativity behind it). Yes, there are moments where certain things don’t seem to meld just right or where certain jokes don’t quite land, but even they are evidence of a certain daring, and the rest of film is enough to make up for them.

A hybrid UK/NZ production, Slow West presents its own take on what is typically considered an American genre. Surely, the fact that Maclean is Scottish (and that his cast members aren’t Americans) has some effect on the film; that said, it feels more appropriate to call it a “postmodern” Western than a “European” one. 

There is a certain element of fantasy and romance to Slow West, but there is also a great deal of cynicism and darkness. The film has a particular (largely pessimistic) view of humanity. While the film does take some time to mourn the devastation of Native American communities, it does not present the world (or its characters) in black and white terms. This is a film about gray areas, and it’s often interested in the self-interested way that people respond to them.

While there is a good amount of violence in Slow West, it is not there without purpose. Part of that purpose is to shock and to entertain, but there is more to it than that. Maclean’s film demonstrates a keen awareness of the consequences of its violence, and it even seeks to haunt its viewers with thoughts of just how many were destroyed by the often mythologized American West. 

For the most part, Slow West is a dark and even pessimistic film, but that doesn’t prevent it from having a sense of humor. As dark as the film is, it’s not insufferably nihilistic, and it’s not afraid to verge briefly into the territory of the silly (even if that means throwing viewers just bit in the process). Moreover, the humor in the film is about more than inspiring a (sometimes uncomfortable) laugh or two; it’s also about calling attention to the absurd. This, in turn, reinforces the overall point of view of the film. After all, if the absurd isn’t a good reason to see the world pessimistically, then what is?

I may not know much about Westerns, but even I could tell that there is something a little off about Slow West. One might even call it “quirky.” Hell, it could even offend some genre purists, but it all makes for a pretty enjoyable (and even intriguing) ride if you ask me. 

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. If you have anything to add to my thoughts on Slow West, feel free to leave a comment below or to get in touch with me on twitter.

As I mentioned in my recent Girlhood review, I’m in the process of moving. That, plus the fact that I’m pretty busy with work right now, means that there may be a little bit of a delay between posts on here for a few weeks. Thanks for putting up with me anyway. 😀

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