“Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact, a 16-year-old kid traveled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America, to find his love."
Slow West is a story about love, about resilience, unlikely friendships and the West.
But above all, Slow West is a story about myths. Personal myths that the characters conjure in their minds as well as the myths about the West itself where their lives unravel.
It’s been 121 years since the first commercial film was released. It’s been 113 years since the first Western made it to the big screen. Westerns have existed as long as cinema.
Over the century, with Clint Eastwood’s 'Man with No Name' to Charles Bronson’s 'Harmonica', Westerns have managed to create quite distinctive notions about the landscape and its habitants in the consciousness of cinema goers. A lawless realm where machoism thrives and the only true currency is revenge.
But there have also exited a different of Westerns. Paul Newman’s 'Butch Cassidy' and Robert Redford’s 'The Sundance Kid' kind of Westerns. A different take on the genre where the heroes could run away in face of peril and the ultimate goal is to find a better life rather than vengeance.
Slow West belongs to the latter league. An alternative Western, if you like.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels to the American West to search for his love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Cavendish dreams of her and though his dreams lets us in on his quest. But Cavendish is a romantic and the world he sees is a one where in the end, the pieces always fall together. But West in 1870s is a dangerous place to dream.
On his journey, he encounters Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter, and employs him to protect him on his journey through the landscape riddled with outlaws and coloured in the red of Native American blood.
Selleck is not a romantic. He lives his life from one bounty to the next. A loner in a lonely landscape. Unlike Cavendish, a bit too familiar with the realities of existence.
The film becomes a constant struggle of ideologies between the two. Cavendish wants to show Selleck there is more to life than just living, while Selleck constantly tries to snap Cavendish back to the grit and the darkness he believes to be the only reality.
But they are not alone on this ride through the West. A gang, led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), is constantly on their trail and the plot it littered with character moving in and out, each one with extraordinary personal stories and quests of their own.
Another aspect that sets apart Slow West form the other conventional Westerns is the strong sense of surrealism.
Director John Maclean weaves dreamlike sequences which blurs lines between the real and the imagined. And although these sequences digress from the mail plotline, they make up for some of the most memorable parts of the film (imagine Wes Anderson directing a Western).
These sequences also provide for some of the starkest commentary on the mythical West that many of the movie goers have come to accept as a reality. When one Payne’s men recounts an incident with one of his former partner, a character very much out of an old Western, the very idea of a lifestyle of seen in the conventional Westerns becomes a parody. In another one, a writer asks Cavendish, “So, now... East. What news?”
“Violence and suffering. And West?”
“Dreams and toil.”
The film is in no hurry to get us to the final destination, but when we do get there, what unfolds is life altering for all the characters. And as for the viewers, it is that bittersweet feeling that one gets when one learns an important lesson in life.
Cavendish’s continent-spanning quest to find his love is also a quest to find balance. A fine balance between myth and reality, innocence and guilt, personal daemons and redemption.
With a beautiful soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography, Slow West is a masterpiece of a Western in its right.