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Film review: Slow West ***

By Preston Wilder

Fair warning: it’s slow, and it’s set in the West. “Let’s drift,” says Silas (Michael Fassbender) – and they do, and so does the movie, a road trip through a land without roads. Silas’ companion is Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a boy who’s come over from Scotland to find his beloved Rose. He loves her with all his heart – but “his heart,” so we’re told, “is in the wrong place”. Jay is naïve, “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves”, and badly unequipped for frontier life. He’s come out West with a few clothes, a teapot, and an unhelpful-sounding handbook titled ‘Ho! For the West!!’.

Slow West – whose unexpected presence at the multiplex must be a case of EU quotas, since the film is officially British – gives the impression of having been conceived as a dry comedy, then enfolded in layers of ironic commentary on how the West was violently ‘civilised’. The template dates back to Dead Man 20 years ago – though in fact the Western seems to be making a mini-comeback in recent years, sparked by The Assassination of Jesse James in 2007 (Jed Kurzel’s languid score in this film recalls the Nick Cave-Warren Ellis score in that one). Like Slow West, recent entries like The Homesman or The Salvation aren’t just revisionist Westerns but post-revisionist, as if to say that Western archetypes are so far in the past that even upending them is now passé; these are films made with tongue partly in cheek, built on a savage nihilism that’s self-consciously a pose.

Death is a recurring motif in Slow West (the film ends with a solemn montage of dead bodies); so is Love. We know this because Jay declares that “Love is universal, like Death” – and a line like that might be super-pretentious, but the fact that Jay speaks it in French (he’s talking to a trio of African musicians in the middle of the prairie!) goes beyond pretentious, the film announcing its awareness that it is indeed pretentious. Slow West is big on self-awareness, as if made by someone who’s watched a lot of Westerns and come out the other side. The treatment of Indians, a.k.a. Native Americans, is typical: the script makes it clear they’re victims, as revisionist Westerns have done for decades – but there’s also an egghead named Werner (met, once again, on the prairie) who talks to Jay about the future, when Indian culture will be gone and future generations (i.e. us) will indulge in “selective nostalgia” about it. Not just a commentary on the Western, but a commentary on our commentary. Post-modern much?

I’m making the film sound dry and academic, and maybe it is (it’s not for all tastes) – but in fact Slow West is full of pleasures. The visuals range from snow-capped peaks to rocky deserts (the Wild West seems to get a lot of weather), while the dialogue goes for wry and jauntily cynical. (Overheard at a trading post: “Got any meat?” “I got condemned bacon.”) Just enough of the comedy survives to take the edge off the forelock-tugging: Jay is shot by the woman he loves, then has to watch her kissing another – and a stray bullet hits a salt-shaker, splashing the white stuff all over him and literally rubbing salt in his wound.

This is not the actual Wild West; it’s a half-jokey fairytale world (the film opens with the words “Once upon a time”) consciously infused with modern attitudes. There are magic mushrooms, and a veiled reference to the Darwin Awards. Smit-McPhee’s air of ethereal innocence is cartoonish in itself, and making him a British aristocrat – shades of Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap, or Waldo the tenderfoot in the Lucky Luke comics – makes it even more so; when this gangly, impractical boy gazes up at the stars, it’s as funny and unlikely as those three African guys in the middle of the prairie.

The film has a touch of the painfully hip. The climax, set in a homestead in the middle of a cornfield, is almost too perfectly composed (the house, the field, a billowing sheet, a black scarecrow, white clouds and blue sky above) – yet it’s also haunting, and expertly staged. Slow West drifts, but it finds delectable detail as it drifts: Jay drunkenly wandering to the wrong campfire where an old man is telling a story (there’s been “an appalling misunderstanding,” says our hero, taking his leave), or putting up his hand without thinking to block an arrow, then staring dumbly at the arrow sticking out of his hand. Maybe the title isn’t so much issuing a warning as describing an alternative – Slow West vs. Wild West, like ‘slow food’ as opposed to fast food – a sly pastiche from a ‘civilised’ time that’s still a bit queasy over how it came to be civilised. Werner’s reassurance doesn’t wholly ring true: “In a short time, this will be a long time ago”.

 

DIRECTED BY John Maclean

STARRING Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn

UK/New Zealand 2015    84 mins

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