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Western Film Review 2015: "Slow West" (Written & Directed by John Maclean, Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee
If you are having trouble thinking of memorable westerns in recent years and find yourself truly stumped, you are probably not alone. One would think, at least at the offset, that the genre was all but dead, swept under the radar like bristling tumbleweeds in the barren desert of yore or the buried six feet under bodies of land barrens and crestfallen sheriffs. To my memory, strong genre pictures like the Coen Bros. 2010 take on "True Grit", the 2008 Viggo Mortensen-Ed Harris starrer "Appaloosa", the better than the original well-cast and fast and furious "3:10 to Yuma" from 2007 and, the moody and atmospheric slow-burner 2005's "The Proposition", are movies that have served to keep the genre afloat. Go back two decades and Clint Eastwood's neo-western "Unforgiven" all but set the standard for the revitalization of the genre. Then comes this one, "Slow West" a muscular and deliberately paced film that gets a great deal of its traction and momentum on key moments, across the board fine acting, and universal themes like the quest for young love across vast divides. Add in a dash of the unexpected heroine who's a real-deal knockout with a shotgun, and the effortless swagger of Michael Fassbender's hardened but well-meaning outlaw, and you get a film that is very watchable if you are willing and patient to pay attention and absorb it all.
It should be noted that this is Writer/Director John Maclean's major feature film debut, but you really wouldn't know it. Perhaps it is the top-shelf cast he was able to assemble that is able to disguise some of the slight narrative issues and occasionally unnatural dialogue, or the fact that he's clearly watched a great many westerns in his day to know the standards of the genre and carve out his own stamp. God bless Cinematographer Robbie Ryan who paints this picture with a really surreal and almost dream-like touch. As you watch, it’s like experiencing a some parts disturbing nightmare and others a buoyant, high-fantasy. Kodi Smit-McPhee's adolescent Jay Cavendish, the film's central protagonist, finds himself stargazing several times as he sleeps on bare dirt with the threat of encroaching Native Americans or bounty hunters ever on the prowl. These moments, the night scenes, are beautiful as he charts the Milky Way galaxy with his fingers or gestures them in the form of a pistol to shoot. He's a dreamer, but he's also not spineless either. Ryan's camera also captures big and small gestures with his close-ups of actors' performing with their eyes in the place of dialogue. The writing is pretty sparse, customary for a film like this, and his lens more than compensates with the hues, big vistas and environmental sights of a real, lived-in world. The thing this film doesn't do is romanticize the West as it takes a brass-knuckle approach to what the alive-with-just-the-clothes-on-your-back day in the life feels like in the 1870s especially if you are destitute and untrained in survival.
This may be very coincidental, but McPhee once tackled a role as the "Boy" that may have provided a good deal of this film's inspiration - John Hillcoat's 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". Although his film, or his performance here, is nowhere near as bleak as that, there are more than several allusions and comparisons to be made among both films and the social commentary they make. "The Road" is, at times, nearly unwatchable if not for its quality but for its utter portrayal of emptiness and isolation that would send even the most optimistic and sunny person into at least a minor depression. But, I digress.
Some things I will make clear to potential watchers of this film: there isn't a sizeable amount of character development in this film which may be a deal-breaker for most viewers. Not to say the characters are caricatures but they all conform to the traditional ebbs and flows of Western-movie folk. You must take them at face value and just assume that they've all faced difficult hardships that have amounted them to a life on the run or in desperate need to be conniving and deceptive if it means to live another day. With virtually all westerns, motivations are almost always clear in some form or another but the elements that are always questionable are morals and allegiances. This flick illuminates this quite well - you are never precisely sure why Fassbender's Silas Selleck decides to be a bodyguard for Cavendish because for most of the way there is no clear indication that there is anything in it for Selleck. Surely, he couldn't be an outlaw with a heart of gold, right? Perhaps he pities the young scamp, out on his own with no family and virtually no resources to call to his aid except for his trusty pistol that's gotten him out of a few close calls before. The dynamics between both characters, and the very able actors' who inhabit them, are both frayed and woven tightly throughout and it’s a fascinating pair of performances and chemistry that, on its own, is worth the price of admission. We soon learn the foreboding nature of Cavendish's trek as his lovely lady, Rose, who is glimpsed at through dreamy flashbacks, has a steep bounty on her head in addition to her father as well and many interested gun-toters truly eager to collect on it, alive or, most certainly, dead as a doornail. Is this why Selleck went along on this odyssey if just to pull a fast one on the impressionable lad at the last minute? Just watch and see.
The real casting wild card here is Scottish actress Caren Pistorius's Rose Ross who, essentially, gives two starkly different performances. In the early first few acts of the film she is portrayed as a domestic who tends to a small, rural cottage with Cavendish as her husband. They bond so well, kiss, frolic and all seems well. Later, she is seen tending a similar stead with her father, John Ross, played by HBO's Game of Thrones actor Rory McCann in a serviceable, if all too brief, performance. Then, a sudden and truly unfortunate tragedy occurs right in her line of sight. This sets off the hunter in her, the real survivor and the film's final 20 minutes are pulse-pounding and incredibly entrancing. She seems to snap, and this alternate personality takes over with several cutaways of her loading a pump-action, short-range shotgun, true to form for the period. We then realize her father has been training her all along for this climactic showdown. We also realize that she has shacked up with a Native American, perhaps realizing that Cavendish was dead long ago. It becomes an onslaught of bounty hunters coming every which way - at least a dozen or more. They start shooting at the house's foundation trying to get it to collapse. Selleck, on the low, is seen picking them off as they come, being ever so noble and insuring that Rose is to live. Cavendish is seen running from afar, having been sidelined by Selleck in the woods for seemingly his own protection and not to hamper this last standoff. The film cuts well back and forth between him gasping and the standoff. Rose does most of the damage with sniper-level precision as you see each man critically shot one by one as they run out of the soot and dirt, their hollow corpses poetically dropping and contorting on the sullen Earth. The camera also remains fixed on her big, Margaret Keane-like eyes, full of fear, condemnation but determination to see it through. It is a mesmerizing sequence of shots, so visceral yet not rushed and unfocused.
When all is said and done, and the dust settles with cutaways of all the bodies stretching for miles out, an injured Selleck ambles into Rose's house seeing her crouched down in front of Cavendish. They look at each other, and this exchange occurs: "He really loved you, you know," exclaims Selleck. "His heart was in the wrong place," she sternly responds. Helmer John Maclean's heart was not, for any brief second, in the wrong place when making this picture. And, he wants you all to know it. I urge you to see this film. Patience will surely reward all who feast upon it.