The Western genre has been severely under-represented this year with the only true entry coming from first time director John Maclean with the odd and beautifully looking new film called Slow West. Even in a year filled with Westerns it would be very easy to recommend this strangely hypnotic journey through the old west as it combines the best elements of the genre mixed with a story right out of the Cohen brothers book of off the wall tales and unusual character encounters. In other words, Slow West, a familiar and wholly unique depiction of a young man traversing the dangerous West in search of his true love, is unlike anything else you will see this year. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: N/A
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 24 min
Studio: A24 Films
Release Date: JMay 15, 2015
Likes: Michael Fassbender, Cohen Brother style films
Neutral: The film can sometimes be a bit too cryptic with its story
Hates: Nothing really
Like Slow West?: Check out the Cohen brother remake of True Grit.
When we first meet our young protagonist Jay (Kodi-smit McPhee) he is traversing the dangerous lands of the great old west all alone when he suddenly comes across a single lone Indian that goes running right by him who is quickly followed by a few soldiers fresh off the front lines and looking a bit disheveled. While Jay informs them that he is not an Indian and that he is in fact British, it does little to sway the soldier who is about to kill Jay until a stranger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) shows up and guns the soldier down right then and there. Owing him his life and recognizing the fact that he needs an armed escort, Jay offers to pay Silas if he is willing to help him get to his destination of which Silas accepts conditionally.
Slow West follows in the grand tradition of the road movie, or in this case the trail movie. We follow our main character as they make their way from point A to point B all the while encountering all types of peculiar individuals along the way. Whether they are outlaws, merchants, drifters or just plain ordinary townsfolk, they are almost always interesting and usually up to no good. That is a formula that has worked for countless other films and is a staple in the Western genre, but it has never been done quite like this before. In fact, aside from the Cohen Brothers remake of True Grit, chances are no one has ever seen the old west depicted quite this...odd.
What makes Slow West such a unique and appealing film outside its off the wall nature are its strong visual style and some superb understated performances, particularly by Michael Fassbender as the bounty hunter with a secret. As for the look of the film, both the cinematography and set designs are striking in their weathered beauty giving the film a sense of authenticity that is hardly ever achieved in films of this sort. The landscape is often a barren vista of rocks, trees and hills that all seem to blend together but never ceases to be stunning to gaze at giving the whole film this disquieting allure. Likewise for the production design in general as all the costumes and make up help suck us into the world of Slow West.
Another area the film excels in is something that only the talented directorial duo of the Cohen brothers have been able to successfully attain, which is that distinct off beat nature that accompanies nearly every one of their works. There is a quirky level of oddity instilled into all the characters of Slow West that is difficult to describe beyond their most basic of qualities. Jay is a lovestruck youth who blindly sets out on an adventure to find the girl of his dreams, but there is a naivety to him that feels out of touch from the world around him for someone raised during that era despite which side of the pond they grew up on. His notion of love is also out of character for this time period which makes him both a refreshing presence as well as one that is clearly out of place amongst the dangers around him.
Michael Fassbender is an actor who can seemingly do no wrong even when saddled with a weak script, but luckily he didn't have to contend with such a problem here as the character Silas is an extremely intriguing fellow of whom we are never exactly sure what his intentions are. We learn early on that he is a bounty hunter and that his current bounty is none other than the exact same woman Jay seeks out, but we are left to ponder what he will do when they eventually find her until that moment arrives. Most of the characters in Slow West are introverted and rarely say what they mean, all carrying a secret of some sort and Silas is the biggest enigma of them all which Fassbender plays perfectly.
The rest of the cast aren't nearly as well developed as both Jay and Silas, but the shear presence of their unusual personalities help give the journey they are on a number of highlights along the way. While they do meet some rather unusual assortment of colorful characters along the way, the most interesting of which is another bounty hunter by the name of Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) who has a mysterious history with Silas, the real star of the film is how everything, from the picturesque landscapes to some tight editing (the film comes just under 90 minutes) and a script flavored with all sorts of eccentricities comes together as a whole to create something truly beautiful in just how different it is.
Slow West is one of those films you really need to pay attention to while you watch it to fully absorb what makes it such a special experience. While one can certainly keep track of the surface level stuff like the story and the characters, there is a underlying sadness to the whole production that isn't fully revealed until its final moments that won't have as great an impact on those who aren't 100% invested by that point. That is probably the film's one and only shortcoming, which is that it may be just a bit too odd at times and risks losing the interest of the audience just to take us out of the moment briefly so that we can have another bizarre encounter that in the end doesn't really impact the overall story. It never reaches that point of no return thankfully but it certainly flirts with derailing itself more than once.
A key element that helps it keep on track and to keep us engaged through all its ins and outs is the film's subversive sense of humor. There isn't anything laugh-out-loud funny that happens as that isn't the type of comedy the director Maclean was going for. Using mostly sight gags, the film's humor often comes off as more surreal than anything else. Take for instance the moment two Indians try to steal Jay and Silas' horses which unknowingly are tied together and what happens when they try to go separate ways around a tree on them. How about when Jay gets an arrow in the hand, while not exactly humorous on its own, his reaction and just the coincidental nature of it forces a smile on our faces even if we don't exactly know why we are smiling. The humor, as diverse and unusual as it is, is a saving grace for a film that is playing just a little left of reality.
There isn't really much more to say about the film other than if you fancy yourself a new Western style movie with beautiful landscapes, a superb cast, some off the wall humor and don't mind shedding a tear or two, Slow West will be right up your alley. There really isn't anything it misses the mark on as the story, while deceptively simplistic at the begining, reveals itself to be a multi-layered tale of love, loss and betrayal the likes of which aren't usually associated with the genre it finds itself in. If you are looking for something off the radar and just a bit unusual, Slow West comes highly recommended for both those who love Westerns and those who usually find the genre a little boring and predictable.
Just about the only negative part of Slow West is that it never saw a proper theatrical release. While video on demand is fine for smaller films and for many it is the only way they can find release at all, it is a shame when a film of this caliber fails to go mainstream. Even it it did get a theatrical release outside its limited run it's doubtful it would have seen the success needed to justify such a lofty undertaking. Regardless. it is readily available now as it is can be viewed by anyone just about anywhere and I suggest you take this opportunity to do just that.