SLOW WEST is many things, other than particularly slow: hilarious, exciting, tense, stylish, and a feat in characterisation are just some of the qualities that jump out of first-time-features director John Maclean’s thriller western. Michael Fassbender is a foxxy dream. Ben Mendelsohn is a deliciously mischievous shaggy dog. But essentially, SLOW WEST is one big gag, at the expense of an adorable, dark-eyed Scottish teenager deep in the throes of puppy love, and even deeper in the unforgiving wilderness of 19th Century Colorado.
The poor boy just wants his Rose back. He’s willing to cross the whole beastly country to get to her. In his journey he will endure the company of conniving bandits, mutiny, being plyed with absinthe, drowning, shoot-outs, hold-ups and all manner of other western afflictions. He is live bait, in all his hopeful innocents, for the thievening vultures that circle the country.
We open with Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) gazing, love-drunk, up into the starry sky, enrapt in memories of the girl he has dedicated his life to, and who he must travel from East to West to rescue (or convince to hang out with him, as we suspect). What seems like a fairytale opening introducing us into the story of a romantic young love becomes the cruel premise for the Big Gag. It isn’t long before Jay collides with the first obstacle in his journey: Silas (Fassbender), who decides to jump on his bandwagon and act as his bodyguard. The two of them embark on a rough-and-ready trail across the American frontier to track down Jay’s sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann), both on the run for a murder that he feels responsible for. It’s painfully obvious that Jay is playing in the big leagues with no experience, and despite getting out of his depth pretty much before the opening credits have finished rolling, he is spurred on by an endearing love that he wholeheartedly believes in. Bless naivety!
Thank heavens he has a willing friend and mentor to look after him, who incidentally knows something that he doesn’t: there is a ginormous bounty resting on the head of his beloved. In contrast to this cute adolescent with big dreams and weedy muscles, Silas is every bit the cast-type rebel cowboy, learned in the ways of the wilderness and a dab hand with a pistol. Even as Silas and Jay come to find they have a mutual understanding, are curious about each other and even depend on each other’s differences for survival, the demands of the flesh – shelter, food and sexual desire – glisten in the elder’s eyes, as in a hungry wild animal’s, so we can never quite trust him. It is clear that sympathy amounts to very little in this world, seeing as you can’t eat or sell it.
Prejudice in my personal preference though I may be, Mendelsohn steals the show with effortless swagger, this time in a particularly fabulous way as he does it wearing a shaggy fur coat. He plays the head of Silas’s ex group of bounty hunters, embodying a cowboy-cum-pimp type, and has all the unhinged swagger and confidence of a sociopathic gangster that you might expect to see in a street hustle flick. He leads act three’s explosive shoot out like a pro.
Maclean has created an original and stylized world that floats through the dreamy nostalgic mind of Jay, often flashing back to intimate times of secret meetings with Rose to fill in the fragmented gaps of the story, but that’s also grounded in the unforgiving nature of Old West life. Death, violence and the survival instinct reigns. It is this unapologetic, pragmatic air permeating through SLOW WEST which colours every character as a wanderer, giving the landscape the right touch that makes it the most enjoyable Western we’ve seen in a long long time. You will be pleasantly surprised how funny such a cruel gag can be.