“In a short time, this will be a long time ago.” – Werner, on the wild West.
Slow West, John Maclean’s first feature film, won the Sundance Film Festival’s Jury Prize for drama earlier this year. That recognition propelled it into a thin but broad theatrical release this month alongside a pay-per-view release. I caught it on the small screen, and it purported itself well, though I wish I’d seen its landscapes and colors writ large. It’s a very good film, especially for a first effort, if a little ill-formed
Maclean: an art school graduate, a founding member of the critical favorite The Beta Band in the 1990’s, and a filmmaker for at least six years now, brings plenty of ideas but invokes a few more themes than he can pull together, resulting in an interesting episodic film that won’t cohere to everyone’s tastes. New Zealand stands in for the 1870 American West. It suggests the American mountains, plains, and forests, and like the sere backdrop of a spaghetti western it doesn’t reach for verisimilitude, instead evoking a mythic, and maybe slightly second-hand, version of our West, as if described in a fable.
Maclean, who also wrote, draws four main characters in Slow West. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 16-year old highborn Scot, come to America to find his love Rose. Silas (Michael Fassbender) is an outlaw who agrees to guide Jay to Rose, for a price. It’s a buddy film, of sorts, and these two comprise our point-of-view. Jay is our surrogate, experiencing the film’s world for the first time, and Silas, an Irish immigrant long-since inured to the harsh New World, is a jaded, cold (even murderous) older version of Jay. A lesser film and a lesser writer may have rendered Rose (Caren Pistorius) a MacGuffin – included only as an impetus for Jay and Silas’s journey, but Maclean is savvier than that. Rose is subject to the whims of a male-dominated world but exercises real agency, both in the confines of the Scottish class system (shown in flashback) and on the frontier. Finally, Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) is an outlaw to whose gang Silas once belonged. Resplendent in sullied mountain man furs, he’s the most at home in the films’ world.
And what is that world? Maclean’s West, like his New Zealand locale, slightly subverts our expectations. Lawlessness is rampant – the only authorities we see are shabbily clad and charged only with killing Native Americans. It’s a diverse West, too, a true melting pot. There are, of course, Scot and Irish and a German and some Swedes, but also a troupe of Congolese and a Chinese member of Payne’s gang. We see desperation and we see arbitrary violence but the lawlessness is more Lockean than Hobbesian; Payne’s gang, as scary as they are, have a deep camaraderie – they have an easy, ribald rapport around the fire, and we hear their stories and their music. The gang is multi-ethnic and multi-gendered and takes on orphans in need. They’re not evil or even amoral, just a manifestation of the place and time, and they seem as natural as the trees and rocks.
Amidst the forging of this New World, the prior inhabitants are losing theirs. Jay passes through burned Indian camps and sees them on the run from the Cavalry. In one of the film’s best sequences, Jay encounters a German, Werner, who is cataloging the culture of the aboriginals before their actual extinction or their cultural extinction at the hands of Christianity. He muses on them, “A race extinct, their culture banished, their places renamed, only then will they be viewed with nostalgia, mythologized and romanticized in the safe guise of art…This is a new world for us, also for them.” This scene with Werner contains most of the film’s self-reflection, and while it’s on-the-nose, it works. Werner vanishes overnight and we’re left wondering if he existed or was only Jay’s fever dream.
Slow West is almost a great film but instead it’s a very good one. Maclean could have used more focus and followed through on his stories, but he goes broad instead of deep. Silas’s redemption is a major thrust of the film, but we never see Silas being very bad in the first place. We see Payne much the same way, and this is a particular shame; Mendelsohn, a terrifying force in Animal Kingdom (2010) and Starred Up (2013), is good here but isn’t given much to do. But these are slight complaints, and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it. Maclean is now a director I’ll follow with much anticipation.