Since the mid-sixties, in Westerns, the hero is not necessarily the best shot and sometimes the best shot in a given film is no hero. This holds true for John Maclean’s Slow West (a UK-New Zealand coproduction), where a Scottish teenager of aristocratic origins, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travelling West teams up with a more desert-savvy man, Silas (Michael Fassbender), who crosses his path and offers to protect him for a moderate fee. Although he is skeptical of the man’s morality and of his established reflex arc of reaching for his gun when he senses danger, young Jay needs Silas’s guidance through this 1870s no man’s land if he is to accomplish his mission: finding the girl he loves, who has fled to North America with her father, and winning her back.
From the onset it’s clear that the characters are anchored more in genre types than in any type of social or historical reality – it hardly matters what they represent about their class or place of birth as much as it matters what they represent to each other. (It might be relevant that it’s a Scottish director’s take on US history.) Silas and Jay’s contrast is mostly played out for comedy. The older man’s matter-of-factness is repeatedly disconcerting to the boy, even though (most of the time) he proves to be right by being cautious. Jay could take a cue for suspicion as to why Silas also resolves to look for the girl with him, but seems a bit behind with the news due to not reading ‘Wanted’ posters. There’s a 2,000$ bounty on the girl’s head.
As one would expect of the irrelevancy of solid education in the West, the fact that Jay has read Darwin doesn’t help him survive. It does, however, make for a witty comment when the two come across a skeleton apparently crushed by a falling log. (The dead man, if we are to believe Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest, couldn’t have been of great value to the community.) Though this is mostly a buddy movie, episodic and picturesque characters make their appearance and sometimes signal unexpected (and thus partly humorous) turns in the plot. The two protagonists witness a store robbery and end up killing the man and woman who dare to break the law – not before the clerk himself is killed, though. This could pass for a moral act or Jay’s imminent initiation into manhood; but when they exit the store assuming that’s the end of that, they come across the couple’s two children who were waiting outside.
Aside from memorable gags and oneiric anecdotes, the great part of the charm in Slow West is located at surface level. The protean Michael Fassbender has evolved here into a weather-beaten Eastwood quiet-type, while Smit-McPhee’s pale skin and eerily distanced blue eyes make him look misfit in the desert. The landscape they travel across (shown with no shortage of wide shots, with New Zealand standing in for Colorado) are in soothing colors – the ever-present clear blue sky, patches of bright yellow vegetation, the warm color of candle light at night or magic hour sunlight. In short, the film gives us plenty to look at. (Credit is due to D.P. Robbie Ryan, Andrea Arnold’s steady collaborator.)
Not merely a talky actionless ‘meta’ film, Slow West delivers a stunning final shootout aimed at Jay’s beloved Rose, where everyone we’ve seen in the film up to that point is either shooting at the wooden cabin or fiercely defending the territory. After this build-up, however, when the lovers eventually meet, the film perversely delays the moment of their recognition, in a scene where any second that passes could cost one of them their life. It all proves that Slow West mischievously gives only to take away.