Slow West Review (2015) | Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24Jul/150

Slow West (2015)

John Maclean's Slow West

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This shore will be a trek won't itSlow West desperately wants to be a quirky, self-aware western that both embraces and subverts familiar aspects of the genre, and there were moments when I really wanted it to be that too. There's so much potential here. When I saw that Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn were going to be in a western together, I ignored the shitty trailer and imagined the kind of movie this team-up might make.

Ben Mendelsohn has the perfect face for an old-fashioned outlaw—he projects a superficial ambivalence hiding intense inner focus and menace (see his recent roles in Starred Up and Lost River, or his batshit crazy turn in Animal Kingdom, and reflect on how none of those movies did anything to deserve being mentioned in the same paragraph as Slow West). I could see him playing a really awesome Doc Holliday. Fassbender has the face and gravity to play a great Man-With-No-Name-style drifter (which is basically the role he has here), and I couldn't wait to see the two work off of each other.

Unfortunately a lot of the screentime revolves around interactions between Fassbender's character and a young Irish man named Jay Cavendish played by Cody Smit-McPhee, both of whom often seem to be acting in different movies. The plot involves two young lovers, Cavendish and his one-time fiance Rose, who are separated when a confrontation between their mixed-class families results in an accidental murder. Rose and her father flee Ireland for the States, and Jay follows, dutifully encountering a range of colorful characters and genre conventions along the way. Rose and her father are also being pursued by a gang of bounty hunters led by Mendelsohn (who I think would have to take them back to Ireland to claim the reward?), and in the course of Cavendish's journey he teams up with Fassbender's character, because the plot demands it.

I don't know why any of the characters would actively seek to spend more time around Cavendish, because he's kind of like the Wild West version of Anne from Arrested Development (“who?”).

Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee

Fassbender acts as a kind of father figure to Cavendish, whose character is about as vacant as his expression here.

A Rockstar Studios Film

As Cavendish makes his way across the frontier in search of Rose, he runs into a variety of characters playing on common western types: the grizzled general store clerk, the righteous fire-and-brimstone frontier preacher, the desperate homesteaders turned outlaws, the Oregon Trail-style caravans who spend their nights circled around a single fire. Director John Maclean's view of these characters is always slanted just so—they're all barely quirky and idiosyncratic enough to be at home in Red Dead Redemption, except Red Dead was fun.

The comparison with Rockstar is especially apt in the way Slow West parades cliches across the screen with the same goofy, genre-rooted self-awareness the game studio is known for—but here they're deployed without purpose. The film is all over the place in the least interesting way possible. One flashback sequence is filmed with the obnoxious energy of a Guy Ritchie film, featuring actors pantomiming their dialogue—and even gunshots—as the narrator's voice-over describes the action onscreen. There's a random one-scene detour through supposedly haunted woods that serves no purpose other than to have somebody get shot with an arrow, then break it in half and pull it the rest of the way through the wound.

Part of what Maclean seems to be trying out here is the stylistic version of anachronism—genre tropes are presented with a contemporary, quirky, dislocated tone leaning more toward Wes Anderson than Ford or Eastwood. And that's ok in theory, as long as the disjointedness is put to use in some effective way. Here it's not really put to use at all.

Is That Jay Baruchel?

Thanks to the endlessly self-conscious styling, I spent more time thinking about the movie the filmmakers must have thought they were making than the one that was actually happening in front of me. For some reason, I couldn't get away from the nagging realization that Smit-McKee looks a lot like Jay Baruchel here. (Hey, Smit-McKee's character's first name is also “Jay,” something I discovered just now via IMDB. Generally it's a good thing if you can remember the main character's name without having to consult the internet.)

Part of the issue with Slow West is that it never tries to hide its contemporary self-consciousness—we don't believe these characters are inhabiting an older time and place (“real” or nostalgically constructed), and the movie doesn't try hard to convince us. An early scene shows Cavendish riding through the woods, trying to navigate by holding out a compass in front of him the whole time, and my first thought was “Is that a phone? Stop texting. Don't text and horse-ride Jay Baruchel.”

Ben Mendelsohn in Slow West

Mendelsohn's character exuding menace from under an inexplicably heavy fur coat.

Why Are We Nostalgic for The West?

It's hard for me to totally understand the manufactured nostalgia and charm of “frontier life” in movies like this, especially when these elements are couched within the more traditional trappings of the genre. One scene features two characters waking up in the middle of a riverbed that was dry when they went to sleep, and is now flooding with rainwater, their belongings ruined and washing away in the deluge—and it pretty much seems like every day of your life would be like this in the Wild West, both metaphorically and literally.

An Aside About Whiskey

Writing this, I keep wanting to call the movie “High West,” which is the name of a whiskey bottler/distillery I enjoy. Maybe High West would have improved my viewing of Slow West.

All Visual Strategies” is Not a Visual Strategy

The visual and tonal strategy of this film is to not have a strategy. It shifts into and out of visual motiffs with little discernible motivation, and this is especially frustrating because they're all executed with considerable formal talent. Scenes will distill traditional Western images into shots that evoke the whole history of the genre—a group of horsemen poised at the top of a distant hill, men lying prone in the grass sighting rifles, a single house on a vast empty prairie—and then suddenly jump into a weird high-energy mode that borders on parody. One sequence that stuck in my memory features Mendolsohn's gang firing a slew of bullets into a frontier cabin from a field, and they each keep alternately popping up over the high grass to fire a shot and then kneeling back down. It's like frontier whack-a-mole, it calls distinct attention to itself, and yet I have no idea why this shot exists in this way.

Frontier Whack-a-Mole

There are like 3 more outlaws in this field. The fields of Slow West are rife with outlaws.

I recently got to attend a screening of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter at the Oriental Theater here in Milwaukee—that's a film whose strength lies in its vastly divergent parts. It succeeds even when it's failing because the cumulative effect of so many off-kilter tonal shifts creates a captivating out-of-genre experience. Its random interjections of German impressionism and horror tropes into a who-the-fuck-knows narrative structure make each new scene exhilarating rather tiresome and laborious.

Come to think of it, Robert Mitchum could match Ben Mendelsohn's effortless combination of sleaze and dangerous allure. You should just go watch Night of the Hunter right now.

Slow West posterSlow West (2015)

Written and directed by John Maclean.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Ben Mendelsohn.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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