Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Slow West’s revisionist Western narrative is bogged down by a confused, unbalanced tone wavering between slapstick comedy and romantic melodrama. The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival from writer-director John Maclean, a first-time feature filmmaker with a knack for establishing a visual landscape. Yet his emphasis on eye-popping splendor steers the tale away from the necessarily established characters and motivations. Outside of a desire for love, the lead played by Kodi Smit-McPhee is a shell of a protagonist, with Michael Fassbender’s rogue bounty hunter acting circles around the inexperienced actor. The highlight of the film is its bouts of comedy, whether that be an encounter with Native Americans that feels like a Marx Brothers sketch or a gag involving salt on someone’s wound that has to be one of the funniest scenes in any film from the festival. Maclean’s desire, though, for a heartfelt story leads to an unfulfilling resolution that doesn’t particularly care for sending off its protagonist with grace. Rather, Slow West devolves into familiar tropes that hinder the audience’s connection to the characters, leaving the film as an emotional mess with gorgeous cinematography and a terrific ensemble.
The film centers on Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), a 16-year old traveler who searches for the love of his life after she mysteriously disappears. The journey takes him across the 19th-century American frontier, a landscape marked by the mindset of Manifest Destiny while coping with its treatment of Native Americans in the previous decades. On his journey, Jay encounters Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a rogue traveler that eerily mirrors Clint Eastwood’s early work. Their first run-in involves murder, so naturally their path will be blood-soaked and vile. Silas is seeking out a bounty for a man and a woman that are on the run, leading to the search involving Jay looking for his love while Silas wants the money from his dangerous mission. There’s a highly engaging moment in a local store that builds tension masterfully and firmly establishes the tone as dreary and ruthless. The journey, though, devolves into more comedy than expected, leading to a serious identity crisis in the second act of the film.
Maclean is a talent behind the screen that will work with more phenomenal actors and improve his craft. But Slow West is a tonal mess that never meshes coherently with its uniquely identifiable Western landscape. Take, for instance, a scene where Jay and Silas encounter Native Americans; the scene starts with terrifying action, and then aims for laughs, before settling on a light dramatic note. It’s frustrating as a viewer because there is only a vague semblance of what Maclean wants to establish with his work. Fassbender is always terrific on screen and doesn’t disappoint here; his Silas is a cold man with a heart hidden very deep inside. Ben Mendelsohn also delivers a satisfying, scenery-chewing turn where he constantly wears a fur coat so, naturally, he’s our bad guy. Potential brims from the surface of practically every scene, so it’s unfortunate that the minimalist Western approach makes the narrative fluffy and shallow. Slow West’s true takeaway is its lush, portrait-like cinematography, a reminder that the film knows the essence of a Western but cannot seem to formulate those concepts into a satisfying film.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)