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West of Eden  

Slow West and the possibilities of the western

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In the final frames of Slow West, the camera pauses over the bodies of all the characters that have died. In quick, static shots, the audience is reminded of every corpse—those of major characters and incidental figures alike—that contributed to the movie's body count.

That tally is substantial: Slow West is a story of guns and horses and men, and a woman or two—a western, albeit a contemporary, art-laced, off-kilter one. (Can we stop calling every western that's been made since The Wild Bunch "postmodern" or "revisionist"? This particular genre has obviously found substantial room for mutation since John Wayne's heyday.) But Slow West isn't a film that wallows in the genre's inherent violence, nor does it adopt ideals of apple-pie heroism. Its best moments are the still, thoughtful ones, where gorgeous photography of an unravaged, almost magical West evokes the characters' inner thoughts. Again, this technique is nothing new in the world of the western—but Slow West handles it marvelously.

Perhaps Slow West's freshness comes from its unlikely provenance: It was filmed largely in New Zealand with a Scotsman at the helm—the Beta Band's John Maclean, in his first feature as writer and director. The landscape is riper and lusher—but no less wild—than what we're used to seeing in American westerns. The people who inhabit it are all travelers from far-off places. Teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is from Scotland, while his traveling companion, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), allows an Irish lilt to peek through his otherwise flinty demeanor. On the road they encounter a group of Congolese singers, a German anthropologist, and a Swedish family of would-be thieves. The only true natives in this country are, of course, the actual Native Americans, but rather than hammer this point home, Maclean's dreamlike story eschews didacticism.

Jay and Silas are looking for another pair of foreigners: Jay's beloved, Rose (Caren Pistorius), and her outlaw father, John (Rory McCann). Their motivations differ, but aren't completely at odds—Silas is pursuing the pair for the bounty, while Jay is in it for some sweet, sweet lovin'. Of course, these objectives will come into fierce conflict should they actually find their quarry, but glassy-skinned, watery-eyed Jay hasn't thought that far ahead. Fassbender, meanwhile, plays Silas as someone who's gruffly aware of the untamed West's rules and the ways to navigate them. (Rule one: say as little as possible; conversation is a waste of much-needed energy.) To complicate things, Silas isn't the only one out for the reward. Ben Mendelsohn, bedecked in an amazing fur coat that's basically a supporting character itself, leads a band of roughnecks who patiently follow Jay and Silas to the outlaws' hideout.

Slow West moves deliberately, but never plods. Despite its short runtime—too short, perhaps, at 84 minutes—the film makes room for gallows humor and charming digressions. (A campfire anecdote about a hand-drawn wanted poster is particularly funny, as is a throwaway shot during a melee in which salt is literally poured into someone's wound.) It's easy to be seduced, along with Jay, by this movie's particular envisioning of the Wild West and its Eden-like, unspoiled beauty. More than just a metaphor for Jay's own agency, it's a place of unlimited possibilities. As long as you don't get killed.

Slow West

Director John Maclean

Opens Friday

Tin Pan Theater

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