British director John Maclean's debut feature decides to measure itself up against what is probably the most mythical of all classic Hollywood genres, the western. Curiously, the western is also probably the one American genre that has been most appropriated internationally, while in the process becoming almost a relic encased in amber at least in its original incarnation. Slow West is a bizarre, alluring proposition: a film that is very much a western as we know and loved it while being something else entirely, set at the same time within the "mythical" Far-West of popular imagination and the "actual", dirty, rugged pioneer country where nothing can match the rose-tinted glasses with which so many see it.
Very early on, bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) suggests to the effete innocent Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that he leave behind the guidebook to the American West he brought along. It's a sly reminder to the viewer as well, since Mr. Maclean's modus operandi lies in reclaiming that self-same reality through a surreal coming-of-age journey in a West "of the mind", part death-dream hallucination, part admission that the fantasy painted by the popular images of the West has little to nothing to do with the real thing. Later, Jay meets a German journeyman scientist (Andrew Robertt), suggestively named Werner (for Herzog?), who travels the country recording a Native American culture about to go extinct - and Werner speaks of "violence and suffering" in the Eastern Seaboard and "dreams and toil" in the West everyone dreams of.
That singular encounter, along with its striking dénouement, reflect Slow West's status as a sort of fever dream, since its basic tale is precisely that of a young man of means that follows his heart's wild desires, come what may, in search of a fresh start in a new world: Jay has left his native Scotland in search of his love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who left with her father to start anew away from the Old World. But Jay is also the reason why she left and a sort of "dark shadow" hovering over her, just as Silas's past is always one step behind.
It's impossible to see Slow West without remembering all the western take-offs and variations that have twisted it over the years - at its heart the tale devised by Mr. Maclean could have been lifted straight from one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti reinventions, and the disorienting, apparently anachronistic elements thrown at regular intervals either remind of Mr. Herzog's work or of the John Hillcoat-Nick Cave collaboration The Proposition (with which, curiously enough, the film shares some crew). That only underlines the film's definition as a post-modernist, post-spaghetti-western receding into a constant mise-en-abîme, with little nostalgia for the past.
There's a sense of wide-eyed anything-goes adventure that quickly dissipates once Silas takes on the role of Jay's guide and teacher in a brave new world that is a lot less welcoming than it may seem; what is left is a combination of open-ended surrealism and grungy realism shot by the great Robbie Ryan in strong, almost candy-like colours that are very Benoît Debie in their texture. Slow West invokes the ingenuity of the genre's post-Golden Era highlights and their use of a ready-made mythology for their own ends, and in so doing translates them into a more knowing but no less fascinating contemporary language. An experiment, to be sure, and one that carries the many marks of a debut film with all its flaws; but Slow West is an enormously affecting, true original, a film that stands apart from the rest.
United Kingdom, New Zealand, 2015
Cast Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Edwin Wright, Kalani Queypo
Director and screenwriter John Maclean; cinematographer Robbie Ryan; composer Jed Kurzel; designer Kim Sinclair; costumes Kirsty Cameron; editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory; producers Rachel Gardner, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Conor McCaughan; production companies Filmfour, British Film Institute, New Zealand Film Commission, DMC Film, See-Saw Films and Rachel Gardner Films in association with Cross City Films, Hanway Films and Fulcrum Media Finance
screened July 2nd 2015, Lisbon