The Old West is a harsh place. It isn’t filled with John Wayne and Liberty Valence, or Clint Eastwood and tall tales; it is a place of brutal realities and sometimes the happy ending doesn’t happen. Happy ending isn’t the end game for John Maclean in his directorial debut, Slow West, as he examines the American West and the challenge of finding that manifest destiny (even if it is on a smaller, more personal scale) in this land of opportunity.
Slow West follows 16-year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he travels from Scotland to the American West in search of a girl and her father (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann) who got into trouble back home due to a mistake on his part. But reality is tough out west, and Jay takes aid from Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to help him reach his destination in exchange for money.
Fassbender feeds into the classic western anti-hero stereotype, playing the role with a mix of a more classic character (say John Wayne as Tom Doniphon) and more contemporary charisma (such as Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained). He is short with Jay, but never not keeping an eye out for the kid who wants to show more maturity than he carries and instead is naive, which isn’t a trait that will get you far in this distant land.
Maclean does a great job of making the American West its own restricted universe, placing us here without much on the outside (save for a few flashbacks to Scotland) and this isolation only builds the fear that something could happen at any point. It only heightens when Silas and Jay enter situations that we know (if you are a fan of the genre) can only end in destruction. But Maclean captures them well, framing them with a mix of classic and contemporary, but also bringing some of his own juice to the party.
That would be the best way to describe Slow West, a throwback to the classic Western with a flair of contemporary to show that the genre isn’t as stagnant as more historians would love to believe. It shares the same bravado as recent hits like Django Unchained (but with less extravagance) or True Grit. The story is lean and fitting with a sense of the past as well as the future. I think that is what made it so enjoyable, not only because the performances were fantastic, but the fact that it feels like a reminder that good Westerns are still to be made and it isn’t a dying breed.
Slow West may not be an instant classic, but it is an important film in its own right. It is a throwback to a time when this genre was king, but with an added feel to make those who may be new to the whole experience excited to see it. Fassbender continues to show that he is one of the more talented actors working today and with the help of Smit-McPhee (who is a strong protagonist to root for), and small parts from Ben Mendolsohn and McCann, it shows that there is still a lot of narrative left in the genre with talented actors who can breath life into the role.
On the outside, it is a fun ride that has moments of humor and honesty that akin to the classics that it takes from. But at its core, Slow West is a large pill to take for the American West and the harsh realities that were faced out there. The shootouts don’t always end with the heroes walking away, the villains sometimes win, and lives are lost, which is something the western knew so well and the blockbusters of today don’t realize.
Slow West takes these truths in stride and excels at telling a story that is both harsh, but impressively uplifting, at the same time.