Chasing love across the brutal Slow West
“We’re heading north”
Midway through Slow West, a travelling writer covering the extermination of the American Indians muses “very soon, this will be a long time ago”. The receiver of this information is Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lovelorn teen on the lam from his chaperone Silas (Michael Fassbender) as he spills through the American frontier towards his fateful Scottish lass Rose (Caren Pistorius). Such a line is indicative of how the film embarks upon the mythologies of the old west rather than falling in line with them (as much tact as terseness). Tellingly, Jay and the writer both harbour foreign accents; they are, as many of the characters, foreigners in a foreign land.
Shot in beautiful New Zealand and filmed as the Colorado of the American frontier, the film activates a different geography to that of the common western. A landscape of darkening greens and deepening pine browns that fade to straw the further west we find ourselves. For Jay the stars are the same, but the land and certainly the people are not; “I’m Scottish,” he says as he faces the barrel of a gun, an invocation of aristocratic privilege and class in a classless land. Silas saves him and takes money to chaperone him all the way to Rose. The two are another on-screen odd couple and Fassbender’s Silas is taciturn and gruff, “whatever you say kid” being his common refrain to Jay’s fanciful and lovesick ponderings as they amble west. He – as his bandit character who finds Rose’s name on a wanted poster – is between two modes, matching the vocal assuredness of Clint Eastwood with the physicality and fiery theatrical eyes of Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s twin pictures Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Their relationship would be a simple one, yet it is complicated by Jay’s rather banal precociousness (Smit-McPhee is perfectly cast as an actual teenager) and the presence of Payne – a slithering, sullying Ben Mendelsohn; is there any other kind? – the leader of an outlaw gang that Silas was once a part of.
Writer-director John Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan frame with excellent craft and simplicity moments of silent discovery and violence disorientating in their tactility, pitched to the tune of Jed Kurzel’s melodic score – perhaps this world is most eloquently summed up in a robbery sequence wherein a frayed European couple overstay at the only inn for miles and are shot down by Jay and the shop keep. Silas too coolly coaches the lady with the gun as Jay fires from behind. Upon leaving, the pair comes upon two small children awaiting their parents’ return. They hardily forge past them even as their trail is easily followed. Where the film falters then is in a camping sequence in the middle of the picture. Payne ingratiates himself with a bottle of absinthe and Jay happens upon the camp of Payne’s gang, those same lost kids with them, their presence straining believability and the circularity of the thread, more poignant if left loose, indicative of one too many rewrites.
Yet while the film is quite clearly leading up to a big climactic shootout, it never overplays its hand – Rose and Jay’s relationship is painfully realised in flashbacks and dreams, he is close to her yet she doesn’t love him. A rival “desperado” and Payne’s gang converge on a small farmhouse as the picture thankfully makes actionable Rose’s character, practical and suspicious of everyone around the blasted house – even Jay. Their last moment together deepens their relationship – a substitute, he manages to sub himself in – while the film stays true; “his heart was in the wrong place”. The side of the house leaves Silas, so much the hero of the piece in another film, in bloody wait. Bullets fly and bodies tumble, yet each and all are honestly accounted. New seeds have been planted in foreign soil, finding one of the best shootouts in recent cinematic memory. Neither revisionist nor spaghetti western, the film could best be described as a straight western, one that strikes upon a new direction with grace and poetry. The narration by Silas that bookends the piece is rather redundant, the elegy of the images doubled up in his narration: “there is more to life than survival, Jay Cavendish taught me that”, but perhaps it’s all worth it for the pleasure of watching Fassbender’s Silas finally get to enjoy his dried out cigar. Ho for the Slow West indeed.