Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Slow West (2015) - Movie Review


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The Western has probably some of the strangest stylistic and artistically inbred origins of any narrative genre. Its genesis lies in the classic samurai flicks of Akira Kurosawa like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. These would in turn go on to get what are essentially American remakes with The Magnificent Seven and the Three Dollars trilogy that gave Clint Eastwood his most iconic role. Then Japan took inspiration from the sand-scorched cinema of the Man With No Name to create seminal anime works like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. Then stylistic film nerd Quentin Tarantino took bits and pieces from those series, among many other sources, to help create the Western samurai Kill Bill movies. It’s like a game of tennis where successful volleys result in cinematic gold and not just watching a ball go back and forth for hours without respite. As a result, the breadth of places where people decide to make Westerns is hardly surprising; hell, I looked at a French existential Western earlier this year. So, as I look at today’s film filmed in New Zealand by a Scottish filmmaker, I can safely say that there are more geographically disconnected iterations out there.


The plot: Scottish teen Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has made his way to the U.S. in order to find his sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland with her father (Rory McCann) to escape a $2000 bounty. Jay hires bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) to escort him through the American West, with them encountering many dangerous characters and terrains along the way.

This is a rather impressive cast who all manage to leave an impact by film’s end. Fassbender’s rogue drifter is top-notch, forging some good chemistry with Smit-McPhee’s na├»ve but determined dreamer. Ben Mendelsohn delivers another bizarrely captivating performance as the outlaw Payne, bringing the same manic kookiness that made him so fun in Lost River. Pistorius, given how well she carries herself off both in her scenes with Smit-McPhee and in the climactic gunfight, had better get more roles after this one because she was fantastic. Andrew Robertt as the writer Werner was a big smartarse but definitely made for an entertaining scene when he got his time to shine.

Rather than creating a large arching story, this film seems to have been designed to be digested scene-by-scene. By that basis, this makes for a particularly good yarn. The main story about Jay’s mission to find love does offer a nice beginning and end in their respective scenes and… well, without giving too much away, let’s just say that after everything he went through, how this film ends really rubs salt into the wound. However, the major draw here comes from the vignettes in between: The Injun hunters, the convenience store robbery, the story about the kid who desired his own wanted poster; it all works really well when seen/heard from the perspective of the very out-of-place Jay Cavendish. It shows a very black sense of humour, as being surrounded by that much death would pretty much require it to keep what little sanity you have left, as well as showing off the traditional harshness of the setting. I’d go so far as to say that this has easily the best scene involving rain that I’ve seen yet in a Western, feeling like something that would have been a legitimate issue in that terrain; hell, it probably still is a cause for concern in the outback today.

While we have the usual musings about how treacherous the era is and what people are being driven to do in order to survive, there’s also a tribute to another more recent tradition of the genre. As our sensibilities concerning Westerns have altered, largely thanks to the works of Clint Eastwood, it has started more and more to incorporate the plights of the original residents of the desert. We’ve seen it before in works like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and, as bad as it is, even the recent Lone Ranger film. Here, writer/director John Maclean takes that concept a step further and looks at the cultural patchwork of the time. Throughout the film, as we meet increasingly colourful characters, we learn that those who aren’t Native American are essentially mongrels: Jay, Rose and her family come from Scotland, Silas mentions having an Irish-Canadian background, not to mention the Swedish family that are torn apart by what takes place around them. That kind of consideration shows not only how needlessly cruel people like the Injun hunters are, but also helps to drive home just how bad the Wild West really is. North America, Britain, Sweden; regardless of where you start, the West is where you’re going to stop if you dare step foot in it.

All in all, this is a nice little morsel of a film. At less than 80 minutes (excluding credits), this film doesn’t waste time and uses every second it has to its advantage, either to show off the landscape, the cast or the simultaneously darkly funny and morally downbeat writing. Given how overstuffed a lot of films are, including several that I’ve looked at in my short time here, there’s definitely something to admire about a film that sticks around just long enough to make its point.

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