Rethinking the Western, again
Slow West (nice title: but what does it mean?) is a 19th-century American tale of an innocent young man in the company of a worldly-wise desperado pursued by a worse desperado seeking bounty set on the head of the young man’s true love, Rose. It is a stark, beautiful little art-house Western full of nice little flourishes. It has a dream cast, a Brit cocktail, Australian, Irish, English. Kodi Smit-McPhee as the young man, Michael Fassbender as his hardened ex-con protector, Ben Mendelson as the bad man: what could be better? But the story makes no sense. McClean seems to have gone about this with a set of half-baked ideas and risky aspirations, borrowing from Sergio Leone and Jarmusch’s Dead Man — models so distinctive they cancel each other out. It’s like copying PIcasso and throwing in a dash of Marcel Duchamp. It’s fun to try, but it won’t work.
But if the result is disappointing it’s because McClean aims high. Since this is his film debut we may cut him some slack. To begin with, as the innocent teenage lover from Scotland, Ray Cavendish, “son of Lady Cavendish,” the tall, lean, angelic-faced McPhee is a memorable presence, a beautiful young Don Quixote, utterly self-possessed and doomed. There are some nice twists and turns in what happens to this innocent, like the game of pistol-pointing that first introduces Silas Selleck (Fassbender), Ray’s dubious self-appointed protector who promises to take him to Colorado safe, fifty dollars now and fifty dollars when they get there. The movie nicely teeters on the edge between mortal danger and comedy in its pistol-pointing, and underlines the grim mortality with a silent survey of all the corpses at the end, like the finale of Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos. It also plays with myth, using the New Zealand landscape to deliver a vaster, more open version of America than America itself can afford, and making Ray a dreamer often gazing at night skies crowded with constellations. There’s a picaresque shiver to the episode when Ray, in the middle of nowhere, meets and dines and rests with a minstrel (Bryan Michael Mills), then awakes to find everything he had, horse, gear, and suit, all gone, except for his underwear.
Bigger set pieces that work fine are the ones in the general store and at the little homestead at the end. The store scene is as desperate and stunning as E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, and that homestead sequence shows some convincing gunplay by Rose, clearly a much hardier soul than Ray, though with a trigger finger that’s tragically fast. McClean should realize he’s much better at violence than at whimsy.
But the flashbacks to Ray’s life in Scotland and his true love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) do not resonate or tell a tale; I didn’t quite grasp why Rose and her father (Rory McCann) fled to North America or got a price set on their heads (the reason, unknown to Ray, why Silas wants to help him find her). Is “Ray” a good name, and is Silas’ use of the word “shit,” appropriate, for 1870? McClean seems careless about these things (I remember how strangely, deeply authentic Jarmusch makes the early scenes of Dead Man). He also is also too ready to throw in things that only distract. Such are the three Congolese singers Ray runs into in the wilds performing in French to whom he pointlessly declares, “L’amour est universel, comme la mort” (Love’s universal like death); likewise the anthropologist, explaining his research on Native American tribes; or the other group of campers Jay wanders up to one night, and then shuffles away from, with nothing much gained. Slow West, indeed.
Now and then McClean shows he really can tell a story and set a scene. It’s just that this time he hasn’t weeded out the irrelevant ones and woven the good ones into a strong whole. One admires his taste in Westerns. One just hopes next time he’ll do something simple, focused, and his own.
Slow West, 84 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2015, winning the grand jury prize in the international dramatic competition, and showed at other festivals. Acquired by A24, it released on the Internet 16 April, in theaters 15 May in the US; in the Uk its opening date is 26 June 2015.
STARS: MICHAEL FASSBENDER, KODI SMIT MCPHEE, BEN MENDELSOHN
RUNTIME: 84 MIN
COUNTRY: UK, NEW ZEALAND