Slow West review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Slow West is a very divergent 21st century western in that it doesn’t rely on being as action-centric as 3:10 to Yuma, overly talky as The Hateful Eight or even as kamikaze as The Ridiculous 6. Implied by the name, it’s a picture that takes its time to mosey across the old west and take in all its natural beauty and grit. At a time when westerns seem to be overly simplified, Slow West dares to be more in the way that a modern western should be made.
It’s a story not too simple and not too complex. The young Scottish boy Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the frontiers of the old west to find a true love he left behind. On his journey, he crosses paths with Silas (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter with the wit and smarts. Jay relies on Silas to survive the tough trail of Native American tribes and competing bounty hunters. But Silas has an agenda of his own on the path they share. Both are quietly brave and deliver some fantastic performances.
On their adventure, there are several scenes where the two will run across some unique individuals for a drink, a bite and/or a story. As Jay attempts to wander a dusty plain, he happens upon a man documenting the Native American tribes. They share some philosophy and a meal for the night, only for Jay to be swindled out of a horse in the morning. Jay and Silas later find themselves sharing a campsite with a collection of bounty hunters that share entertaining tales of mistaken bounties and fatal errors. There’s something rather classic and pleasing about a western that wants to take its time - moseying along towards its goal while taking a breather between the violence.
First-time director John Maclean has a knack for hitting the right tones of drama and comedy in a free-flowing western. There’s a perfect moment that encapsulates this spirit when Jay and Silas stumble upon the corpse of a man that was crushed by a tree. The body had been there for so long that it is picked clean to the bone. Jay says it’s not funny, but Silas convinces him that it’s a little bit funny. It creates an atmosphere of grit and violence, but also takes sobering moments to appreciate the strangeness of survival. Jay is able to survive an attack from Native Americans by catching an arrow in his hand rather than his face. Silas smiles at Jay’s luckiness and casually rips the arrow out of his hand.
Another surprising trait of Maclean is his impeccable eye for shooting a western. He makes great use of wide shots to showcase long and desolate plains that the duo wanders across. Even during the climactic shootout, there are moments of beauty where Maclean makes great use of space and distance as bounty hunters converge on a house. The close-ups of this scene don’t skimp on the blood either as the violence becomes quite raw at times. It felt strangely old-fashioned to watch an action scene that has faith in shots and composition as opposed to keeping the camera constantly moving.
Slow West feels both traditional and fresh as a western of beauty, thought and grit. At a brisk 84 minutes, it’s surprising how much time the movie takes to dwell on the more interesting angles of the old west. John Maclean creates characters and settings that breathe with life and sing with a subtle charm. It may not have the same bite and grittiness as the more hard-nosed modern westerns, but Slow West reminds the audience that intense shootouts and fast-paced horse chases are not required for the genre. Sometimes you just want to take in the majesty of the cosmos or the wonders of life before the guns blaze and the horses ride.