If the world was like the plot of far too many Saturday morning cartoons, and the brain of Wes Anderson could be transplanted into the body of Clint Eastwood (or vice versa), the end creative result would be Slow West.
Starring (and narrated by) the inimitable Michael Fassbender and featuring the directorial debut of Scottish director John Maclean, Slow West is an engrossing tale of unrequited love, existential crises, Mother Nature’s moral indifference, and the emotional fortitude possessed by those who attempt to settle unsettled frontiers.
The story follows a young man named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who in 1870 travels from Scotland to the Colorado territory in search of his lady love, Rose. Jay is a kind, wealthy lad whose profound naiveté is balanced by his earnestness and bravery. His mission—so far as he sees it—is to pursue the “girl that got away” after Rose and her father John (played by The Hound from Game of Thrones) are forced to flee their Scottish hometown due to the accidental death of Jay’s relative. Jay knows that Rose and her dad are innocent and eventually retains the rugged services of a hired gun by the name of Silas (Fassbender) to help him survive long enough to track down the pair of needlessly fleeing outlaws.
Unbeknownst to Jay, Silas is, in fact, one of many bounty hunters on the trail of Rose and her father. The fate of the girl Jay loves will depend on who gets to her first.
Despite being filmed in New Zealand, with a cast that includes no American actors, Slow West is an honest-to-God Western. The earlier allusion to a Wes Anderson-Clint Eastwood hybrid springs from the film’s ability to combine the specific types of “artistic” camera shots (where everything within the frame is there for a nominally pretentious reason) found in a Moonrise Kingdom with the bleak, gritty, self-aware storytelling of an Unforgiven.
Slow West is an impressive maiden voyage for director John Maclean, and there is much to like about it. The acting is superb and subtle. Everything that happens brings us closer to the story’s climatic and memorable resolution. It is a renewed look at a classic genre of film that does not try to reinvent or turn its back on the formula that made it worthy of the moniker “classic.” Slow West deftly navigates the need to be honest about some of the darker parts of our nation’s westward expansion with the desire to tell a heroic story. The narrative acknowledges the fact that we still need warriors to protect us from the bad guys, and that not everything can be settled with diplomacy. And while the depravity of mankind is explored and on full display throughout, there is no over-glorification of Nature’s equally-as-harsh realities; no empty-headed references to how things were unequivocally better before modern medicine and technology. (You know, when everyone died by the age of 35 from drinking the same water they relieved themselves in?)
The best reason to watch Slow West is Michael Fassbender. He is becoming one of those actors that you will pay to see, regardless of the film. His soothing, confident tone narrates the entire movie. His character, Silas, is the “strong, silent type” but instead of employing the emotionless thousand-yard stare of a Tom Hardy, Fassbender creates a rough-and-tough bounty hunter whose strength is not that he is never afraid; he is strong because he has learned that the bad guys die just as easily as the good ones. Like John Wayne’s “Rooster Cogburn” in the original True Grit, Fassbender’s Silas has flaws and suffers from self-doubt, but he hasn’t completely given up on humanity, something he realizes after witnessing the sincerity and courage of his young friend Jay Cavendish. Would that more actors—and more movies—accomplished half as much.