Slow West, a new western from New Zealand by first time writer/director John Maclean, struggles from start to finish, never sure if it’s supposed to be a Coen brothers movie, a Jarmusch movie, a Wheatley movie, or itself. None of the characters feel fleshed out, the thin story never accrues the existential weight it needs to support itself, and the ending, though satisfactorily violent, satisfies no emotional needs.
I liked it.
It’s just strange enough to keep one watching. Though nothing about it quite comes together, it’s interesting watching it try.
The story is as simple as can be. In 1870 a young Scotsman, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has come to America to find the woman he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who ran off to the states with her father (Rory McCann, AKA the Hound in Game of Thrones) following an unfortunate mishap with a man’s head and an ill-placed rock. The movie begins with Jay meeting some sort of loner/killer/bounty hunter type, Silas (Michael Fassbender), whom he pays to help him find Rose. But upon hearing Jay’s sad story, Silas realizes he’s seen Rose and her father on wanted posters. Seems there’s a price on their heads, dead or alive.
So Silas is after the bounty, and Jay is after his true love. Along the way they meet various and sundry western types, get drunk on absinthe, shoot people when called for, and eventually come upon their quarry just as all other interested parties do.
There’s a slightly surreal quality to Slow West’s look due to its being filmed in New Zealand and Scotland, neither of which much resembles the American west. But there are plenty of wide open spaces, distant mountains, forests and rivers to put us in mind of what we imagine the west ought to look like. The color palette is a vibrant one, adding to the movie’s sense of unreality. It’s nice to see someone using digital cinema to achieve a look with a purpose.
Fassbender, who co-produced, is, as always, compelling, though as Silas he doesn’t get a chance to be much more than a monosyllabic Eastwood type. Silas narrates the film here and there, and by the end one realizes he rather than Jay is the focal character. Smit-McPhee is fine, but as a character Jay is even less realized than Silas. He’s a young man in love with the wrong woman on an adventure of personal growth. Things go less well overall than he might have wished.
The violence tends toward the sudden and blunt. Let’s say it’s stylized in the interest of realism. There’s humor too, of the deadpan Coens/Jarmusch variety, mainly from the supporting cast of sincere oddballs. Tonally, the movie’s all over the place. Dead Man it ain’t.
And yet. I still liked it. Westerns provide such fertile ground for existential musings that even muddled musings can be transporting. Or at least distracting. Slow West isn’t what it wants to be, but it wants it bad enough to keep you wondering how close it’ll get.