WRITTEN REVIEW – Slow West (2015)
Directed by: John Maclean
Written by: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius & Ben Mendelsohn
Music: Jed Kurzel
Release Date: June 26th 2015
It’s easy to respect Michael Fassbender as an actor who does whatever he wants to do. While he has made a name for himself by starring in blockbusters such as ‘X-Men: Days of Future‘, ‘Prometheus‘ and the upcoming ‘Assassin’s Creed‘ as well as high-profile awards contenders like ‘Steve Jobs‘ and ‘12 Years A Slave‘, Fassbender has no qualms working with small-time directors on no-budget projects. ‘Slow West‘ is the latest example of this as Fassbender re-teams with director John Maclean as the two have worked with each other on the short films ‘Man on a Motorcycle‘ and ‘Pitch Black Heist‘.
With ‘Slow West‘ marking John Maclean’s feature length directorial debut, along with Fassbender he’s also collaborating with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn. With the niche, name appeal the movie was met with critical acclaim at Sundance, which was the be expected with a Western as the genre (when done on a low-budget, at least) has always been a critical soft-spot. But ‘Slow West‘ definitely lives up to its name as it’s a slow burn of a movie. Is the experience worthwhile or is this another failed attempt at a modern western classic?
Jay (Smit-McPhee) is a Scottish teenager traversing the West in order to find the love of his life, Rose (Pistorius). On his travels, his life is saved by a lone, quiet bounty named Silas (Fassbender) who escorts Jay across the West for a fee. But on their travels, Silas discovers that Rose is a wanted woman with a large bounty on her head – the type of bounty that draws the attention of desperate men. Silas and Jay (who is unaware of the bounty) need to reach Rose before the other bounty hunters – who are led by Payne (Mendelsohn) who has a history with Silas.
As I mentioned earlier, the title ‘Slow West‘ is not a lie as this is a movie with an incredibly slow, glacial pace. The first two acts of the film are mostly comprised of short vignettes with very little character progress. The characters in ‘Slow West‘ appear fully formed and don’t really change over the course of the movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as ‘Slow West‘ only clocks in at a 84 minutes which barely makes it feature length, but John Maclean’s origins as a short-film director and writer are very apparent.
Jay, in particular starts the movie as a love-struck young man who is hopelessly out of his depth and that never really changes over the course of the film. If anything, Jay’s fears of the West are justified on multiple occasions with one of the best scenes taking place in a bespoke store where a Mexican standoff occurs which one helluva pay-off (even though ‘Slow West‘ does ruin the pay-off by calling back to it at the end of the movie). When looking back on ‘Slow West‘, what I remember most were some standalone moments like Jay’s encounter with a bow & arrow wielding Native American, Silas’ first appearance and the two waking up in the middle of a rushing river. But in terms of the characters and the narrative, there’s very little present that hasn’t been done before.
‘Slow West‘ is roughly the millionth Western movie looking at the contrast of civilisation and the unlawful West. It has nothing new to say about this theme, offers no original dynamics between the optimistic and civilised Jay and the bitter and hardened Silas and while the characters aren’t bad and the execution is fine, it’s not original, new or noteworthy.
The main draw of ‘Slow West‘ is the casting of Michael Fassbender as Silas. In terms of badass cowboy portrayals in fiction, Fassbender is more akin to John Marston from the video game ‘Red Dead Redemption‘ than “The Man With No Name” or Rooster Cogburn. Silas’ charm isn’t written into the script and is definitely a product of Fassbender’s nearly effortless performance and his formidable screen-presence. He looks awesome while chomping on a cigar, wearing a badass cowboy hat and laughing to himself when a man trying to kill him gets shot from behind. Silas is the most entertaining part of the movie and is a man defined by his actions as opposed to his words, even though he does have a sharp tongue.
He does have a pretty cliché arc though as Jay theorises that he has a harsh exterior because he’s lonely. And then that’s all the movie does with the concept. Solid foundation, but practically no execution, let alone pay-off. Also, his history with Payne only comes up in one inconsequential scene. As far as the story and characters are concerned, Silas and Payne might as well have never met before for all the good it does.
Jay himself is also a rather flat, one-note character. This isnt the fault of Kodi Smit-McPhee, he just doesn’t really have anything to work with and he just moves the story forward. It also doesn’t help that Jay has no idea that Rose is a wanted woman, even though he was THERE during the event that caused her to have a bounty on her head. It’s a dumb narrative oversight that’s only there so there can be a “reveal” moment when Jay discovers what is going on and even then it doesn’t amount to anything. Rose is a decent character who gets to display a lot of independence towards the end of the movie, but she’s not particularly interesting. And as much as critics are raving about Ben Mendelsohn’s performance, he’s okay but he’s done MUCH better elsewhere in the same time of role.
It’s not until the third act when Jay and Silas discover the presense of the other bounty hunters seeking to kill Rose and having to defend her home in the middle of nowhere where it feels like the movie is progressing with the semblance of a narrative as opposed to out-of-context sequences being thrown at the script.
At least the production values are strong. Despite being a low-budget, independent venture ‘Slow West‘ does look very good and is appropriately shot on film and on location. While it’s hard to NOT to film gorgeous looking landscapes for a Western movie, ‘Slow West‘ does showcase some breathtaking examples. The score is appropriately minimalist, the make-up effects are surprisingly awesome with a few gruesome moments coming unexpectedly but frequently and the costumes, sets and props are era appropriate. The store scene showcases a lot of detail in the background and I loved some of the costume details like when Jay tries on a cheap suit and finds a bullet hole in the chest pocket. It’s a nice moment and highlights the terrific work from the costume department.‘Slow West‘ is a passable Western that despite only clocking in at 84 minutes, it does feel 45 minutes too long. This could be due to director/writer John Maclean’s experience with short films prior to the making of the movie. It would also explain why ‘Slow West‘ feels made up of standalone quality moments but nothing that really adds up to anything, at least until the 3rd act (and by extension, the plot of the movie) turns up. The cast are decent, with Fassbender being the obvious stand-out and it’s well made with impressive production detail, but ‘Slow West‘ is too insubstantial and trite to be worth watching, even if the film isn’t a time consuming watch to begin with.
I give ‘Slow West‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 13th Jul 15