Film review: Slow West
Slow West (2015, UK/US) 4 stars
Our world is a harsh and cruel world. Certainly, it has beauty around every corner, and there’s also love and joy galore, but it’s difficult to escape the pure inhumanity. It’s that old chestnut about life being nasty, brutish, and short. It’s about trying desperately to avoid living a life where life itself inevitably renders you not just uncaring, but numb, and not just numb but the worst and most insidious mental state known: ambivalent. It’s about trying to love and dream, and feel anger or hate or melancholy or desire when every experience leaves you with with nothing but apathy, when everything about life leaves you with nothing in life. It’s not enough to just cope with what life throws at you; it’s about trying to live.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young Scottish aristocrat who goes to Colorado in the 1870s in pursuit of the low-born girl that he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius), and to learn important lessons about life and love and the world in general. On his way across the barren and unforgiving west, Jay joins up with Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) – but Jay doesn’t know that Silas is a bounty hunter, and that the bounty he is hunting is on the heads of Rose and her father. Silas uses Jay to help him find Rose before all the other bounty hunters. Just like any Western or any film about bounty hunters there’s gunfights, wry cowboy humour, and endless shots of a beautiful wilderness. Just like any coming-of-age movie, there’s plenty of people finding themselves.
Slow West isn’t just a film about bounty hunters though, and it’s certainly a lot more than just your ordinary flick about cowboys and the rugged American West, and it’s a coming-of-age tale far different from the humdrum Hallmark movies we’re used to. It’s a surreal experience, equal parts seminal cinema and offbeat arthouse. It’s a coming-of-age into that world that I mentioned earlier: the one that’s nasty, brutish, and short. The film moves from sudden violence (and the violence is sudden) to deep introspection to bold comedy and back again to violence all in rapid succession, and it does so in a very quick 80 minutes.
This film is cleverly made and wisely crafted. It’s quite obvious that this is a film from a person who views cinema as art, rather than just a medium to tell a story. Slow West is director John Maclean’s first feature film – he’s made short films before (including one starring Michael Fassbender, which he filmed on a mobile phone), and he’s made several music videos for the bands that he’s been in. It’s clear, though, that he’s been quite influenced by his studies – he spent the early nineties at the Royal College of Art, doing degrees in drawing and painting. This comes through in the carefully framed shots, and the skilfull use of light and shade and colour. Fassbender is cool and calm, channelling Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Smit-McPhee’s Jay manages to stay wide-eyed and naive throughout, but in a way which shows great skill as an emotional actor.
Slow West is a moral tale that avoids moralising. It’s a cowboy film that never uses the tiresome and trite metaphors of the genre. It’s a coming-of-age movie in which the hero never comes of age. It’s a story about the brutality of life in which life comes out triumphant.
Michael Tarry 25th May 2015
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