This is one of those films that only come to town thanks to my local independent cinema which I have sadly and admittedly have under-used, Thankfully The Phoenix in Leicester gave me that opportunity to catch Slow West (2015). I am indeed being treated to a few westerns this year, whatever form they care to come in. Much like the previous The Salvation (2014) is European in tone, well more so the latter really. In terms of tone, Slow West has more in common with offbeat westerns made in Hollywood, the only one I can think of in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which I am still very unsure about. Maybe because it is played more for laughs before you get those twist that leave you in the cold.
Anyway coming to date here we have a splendid little film where not a lot really happens from the moment that young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is bribed into being escorted by man of the west Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender who also narrates) across the open country. We soon learn the motivation behind this gesture. As Jay is in search of his sweetheart who moved out to America, whilst not aware of her background as an outlaw who has escaped with her father in hopes of an easier life.
With the premise in place we set out, that’s not after the first draw of the guns which end quite surprisingly really. The language of the Western has been simplified and amplifying that fact to great effect. It’s having fun as this love-struck young man makes his way across dangerous open country. Getting himself in situations and growing up, making his first kill (not saying we should all do that). It’s full of surprises, taking heavily from the Coen Brothers style of twisting the plot at times to keep you on your toes. There was very little in the way of twists in their western True Grit (2010) finding more in common with Millers Crossing (1990). It is more authentic whilst also taking licence to be unique, as we meet Silas’s old gang lead by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) who plays a very much larger than life gunfighter who plays is cool, trying to get Silas to once more ride with him as they are both after the same bounty.
I’m also reminded of Clint Eastwood‘s nameless bounty hunter from the dollars trilogy, single-minded, out for himself and taking advantage of the situation at hand. I don’t think that Fassbender is doing this intentionally as he does grow to love the young man, developing a mutual respect for each other. You could say the events make no sense as one random thing moves the film forward or gives it a jolt in the arm. Things literally do come out of nowhere, making it’s a refreshing film to watch, not just as western but something that really does make you sit up and think “what just happened?”
It also comments of the aborignals if only briefly in prophetic form via Werner (Andrew Robertt) a travelling author who is documenting the Native American’s demise. Slow West is commenting on the genre and Anericas past without being giving us a lecture about it. Even when we see them they are treated with respect, yet they are still faceless and nameless bar one.
Technically it’s unique, shot in an old screen ratio of 1.66:1 that really makes this something special to watch, not your stand 16:9 ratio, everything is carefully composed in this more confined space, pieces do fall out, yet it’s more intimate to watch in this format. Cinematographically there are some great compositions, especially at the end during the gunfight, making use of the landscape to really enhance the gunfight. All this before ending on a bombshell of sorts, here we don’t have that happy ending that we would have from Hollywood, as they embrace. Instead it more realistic, not in the face of our expectations for them to ride off into the sunset. Making this refreshing to watch and enjoy, a shot in the arm once more for a genre as one review (paraphrasing) says it not quite up there in boot hill just yet which is reassuring to know as new ways are found to keep it alive.