Slow West is a brilliant and provocative Western. It begins as a love story and becomes a fable about America, exploring the dreams and ideology behind the mythic Wild West. The first feature film by Writer-Director John Maclean, it won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year and deservedly so. Tense, beautifully shot and intelligent, it follows in the footsteps of great modern Westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,The Proposition and the Coen Brothers’ modern day western masterpiece, No Country for Old Men.
This is a stunning movie. Filmed in New Zealand as a stand-in for the Colorado of the Wild West. It’s enriched with a palette of vivid colours which gives the film a mythical dreamlike quality. Yellows, purples and blues fill the screen with majestic landscapes, beautifully framed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. In one scene a Native American runs through a rich green forest fleeing for his life. The vibrant colours of his war paint, captured beautifully by the rays of sunlight blasting through the trees. One of the last of his kind, he’s chased down and killed by opportunists, his blood adding to the canvas of colours. It’s an impressionist painting of the fleeting final days of the American frontier; the savage acts involved in creating the new world juxtaposed against the beautiful natural backdrops of the old. It’s almost appropriate that it’s not filmed in America. It’s as if to say that the old America was another world, well and truly gone.
Slow West explores the final days of the old frontier as a ruthlessly Darwinian Empire, where different migrant groups are crawling over one another for survival. If they’re smart and good hunters, they can even become rich by eliminating their competition. Fassbender’s Silas is a product of that world. He’s an immigrant outlaw who’s survived by claiming bounties, tricking people and taking advantage whenever he can. He’s a complete contrast to the young and naive Jay, who opens the film looking up at the stars, recounting the constellations and imagining each star shining for him as he pretends to shoot them. A dreamer and a romantic idealist, Jay embodies the sentiments of the American Dream, the hopefulness of the immigrant, in pursuit of happiness in the west. Silas, on the other hand is a product of greed and the bounty economy that has made the frontier a hunting ground for the opportunistic. He knows what life in the Wild West is like and has adapted to it to survive. But he also admires Jay’s dreamlike vision, which offers a glimpse into what the West could become if people were driven by love and care, instead of greed.
There’s a mischievous dark humour to Slow West that often comes out in stylistic visual flashes. At one point, Jay and Silas amusingly carry their damp clothes on an improvised washing line between their horses that ends up laughingly saving their lives from a violent native. In another moment, salt falls into a wound at the most appropriate or perhaps most inappropriate time, creating a menacingly amusing moment. It can almost be jarring, pulling you out of the action, to laugh at the irony of the situation with a visual gag. But then another gunshot fires and the film’s brilliant sound mixing pulls you right back into the action with reverberating and deafening gunshots and its ponderous folk tunes.
This is a highly enjoyable film and one that avoids the dust of its aging genre. It’s a postmodern Western that’s as current as it is historical. Poetic and stunning, with a dry humour and a haunting quality, Slow West ranks among the best in contemporary Westerns.
Slow West is out now