Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn
Genre: Action/ Western
Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) travels alone across 1800s Colorado in search of the love of his life who left Scotland with her father to pursue a new life. A mysterious bounty hunter named Silas (Fassbender) offers to chaperone him across the remote and dangerous land, but without revealing his true motives.
We are of course often forced to pigeon hole films to a certain genre, and its setting of place and time (and quite possibly the use of the word ‘west’ in its title) may very much make Still West stigmatised as a ‘western’ by genre. Well there is no denying that John Maclean’s film is very much aware of the genre it will inevitably be classified as; it happily abides by the tropes of the so called ‘western’, but is also happy to pay homage to both the genre and the supposed point in history that it is intended to represent. It manages to do this in a way that is sometimes playful, but always suitably respectful, making for a film that most certainly is not perfect, but is a very well made and acted film that is most definitely an enjoyable and involving viewing experience.
At a running time of only 84 minutes, Slow West certainly is a film that tries to deal with things quickly, and with such a simplistic narrative at its heart this is a suitably apt running time. It is of course a protagonist driven narrative and though the protagonist of Jay is given a backstory, there is very little character development given for other characters. This however seems very much the intention of Maclean, as we are told exactly what we need to know for the particular story he is intending to tell in his film, and it makes for an effective method of straight-to-the-point storytelling that keeps its cards tantalisingly close to its chest. Maclean takes a tried and tested narrative concept and tells it exactly how he wants to, in another film this same concept could have easily been turned into a deep and cathartic two and a half hour epic, but that is not the angle Maclean is going for, and he deserves full credit for telling this story his way. I will of course refrain from spoilers, but the film’s simplistic narrative effectively mirrors the varying, but very simplistic way of life and motivations of its characters.
The narrative’s characters certainly predominantly come from the list of genre clichés, but clichés are fine if used effectively and thanks to the great performances and the intentionally minimalist style of storytelling are still memorable. This makes the two main characters most definitely worth routing for, which is of course crucial for Slow West to work. Kodi Smit-McPhee delivers a fine turn as Jay, capturing his youthful naivety and enthusiasm perfectly, meanwhile the always charismatic Fassbender is excellent as the mysterious Silas and he makes his character’s slightly predictable arc more convincing. The always excellent (especially when in a bad guy role) Ben Mendelsohn has little to do, but is effectively menacing in his role.
Maclean also demonstrates an impressive visual eye; with every shot seemingly being intentionally placed and scrutinised in a way that is on a par with that of Terence Malick or Wes Anderson. Maclean uses the stunning settings to maximum effect to make the setting and location very much a main character in itself both in terms of the visuals, and some of the dialogue supporting characters have. Maclean’s impressive camerawork, the superd sound design and Jed Kurzel’s wonderfully rustic score only add to the immersive experience of the narrative.
Supporting characters appearing in just one scene undoubtedly adds to both the playfulness Maclean has with the genre and his undeniable homage to it, and they certainly all justify their existence as part of the narrative’s overall themes, but it does make the narrative feel very episodic. These moments where random characters make poignant (and admittedly well written) speeches does threaten to overload the narrative with too many ideas and themes, and also does at times make the film feel a little too self-indulgent and aware of itself, which does make slightly alienating viewing.
However, Maclean is a disciplined filmmaker, and the 84 minute running time is most certainly testament to this. Though Slow West undoubtedly threatens to be episodic, self-indulgent and take on too many ideas at times, Maclean walks that tight predominantly very well and Slow West is overall a fitting tribute to a genre and time period with a stunningly executed and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
An effective homage to both a genre and a historic time period; Slow West is most certainly not perfect, but is an immersive, very well acted and enjoyable genre piece that deserves to be seen on the big screen.