A 16-year-old boy Jay (Smit-McPhee) journeys across the American frontier at the end of the 19th century, in search of the woman he loves. Along the way Jay is joined by Silas (Fassbender), a mysterious traveller with his own agenda, and is hotly pursued by an outlaw named Payne (Mendelsohn).
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a tenderfoot from Scotland, hapless as an albino heifer, in the sprawling American mythic west, once upon a time, in search of his sweet-cheeked gal, Rose, who’s running from the law. Nearly mowed down by a renegade injun, he’s soon looking down the expulsive end of a confederate shooting-iron. But a shot rings out, and it’s not his. A battered outlaw in a bandana named Silas (Michael Fassbender) has saved his britches.
Dusty ill-tempered confederate soldiers. Check. A cherry-cheeked gal named Clementine, Annie, or Rose. Check. A gruff, grubby, laconic loner who can shoot the eyes out of a rattlesnake. Check.
Silas convinces young Jay that things can get powerful vexatious out in the wilderness for a greenhorn, and he’d be happy to serve as his guide—for a price. But Silas is only peddlin’ him the soft soap about protecting him and whatnot; in fact he has more interest in getting his paws on some reward dinero than in neighborly causes. Enter a group of varmints on horseback who appear to have some past business with Silas, led by an ornery four-flusher by the name of Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
Double-dealing and squinty-eyed deviltry. Check. Bounties and ‘Wanted’ posters. Check. The man wearing a fur coat on horseback being particularly evil. Check.
As they proceed to their quarry through the breathtakingly shot landscapes—of New Zealand—they manage to avoid a mess of trouble, including a tense confabulation with Payne who gets roostered up on tarantula juice and forces an unwilling Silas—who we suspect to be a Friend of Bill’s— into partaking in the tonsil varnish and getting jingled. They near enough meet their demise. Actually, any sleeping or closing of the eyes seems to get Jay in a whole heap of confoundment (if he’s not waking up robbed he’s waking up nearly drowned). Along the way they encounter social injustices and a whole herd of immigrants—from Germany, Scandinavia, the newly United Kingdom, Japan—that seems akin to a diorama on a treadmill in ‘It’s A Small World’ at Disneyland.
‘Round the campfire tale-telling. Check. Riding off into the sunset, check, though not at the end but instead just to dry their laundry. But still, check. Revenge, deceit, and an outlaw who ain’t so bad after all. Check, check, check.
Slow West by John Maclean is a ravishing film ripe with the tropes and mythology of the American western, from shaving with a hunting knife to shoot-outs and orphans. But it’s firmly in the realm of storytelling, of fairy tale—stylistically perhaps best exemplified by the flashback of a campfire story, where the narrator lip-synchs the voices of the characters on screen.
The best Westerns are usually the non-American ones, the ones where foreign eyes see the tales as tall, as exotic fables instead of as intrinsic to their identity, as Americans do, and somehow sacrosanct. You see this in American politics, where a president can quickly bolster his approval ratings by pretending to be a cowboy. ‘Wanted, dead or alive,’ George W. Bush drawled about Osama Bin Laden shortly after the September 11th attacks, like he was the good guy. Ronald Reagan was the ‘Cowboy President,’ treating Cold War relationships as though he thought he was still on the set of Cattle Queen of Montana. Then there’s Charleton Heston (not a President, except of the NRA, which is pretty much the same thing) and his cantankerous threat, ‘I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands,’ and of course Clint Eastwood, the churlish, toss-that-tin-badge-into-the-dirt-and-fight-like-a-real-man Western hero at the 2012 Republican convention, talking to an empty chair, hallucinating that Barrack Obama was sitting in it—the Man With No Name fightin’ the Name With No Man.
But Slow West sets out to be something more than a fairy tale. It wants to be a treatise. Characters bemoan the poor treatment of the Native Americans, admire the cultural heritage of recently arrived Africans (including one in a wheelchair—in the scrublands of an untamed Colorado), and tut-tut over the civilized barbarity of white people. It’s a little anachronistic, since empire was still the mandate for Europeans, who were hardly sensitive to aboriginal rights and multi-culturalism. Women wouldn’t have the vote for decades, and African Americans wouldn’t be able to drink from the same water fountain as whites for nearly a century. The sensibility is very much of the 21st century hammered onto the film like a shoe on a horse.
Hard to know what to do with a revisionist Western, especially since they’ve been around so long they’re not revising anything anymore. Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970). The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), and Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1972) pretty much cast a post-Civil Rights Movement eye back on race and genocide in the Old West, and how being racist and massacring indigenous people isn’t a nice thing to do. And then McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) could have been said to have been the final word on Westerns, with it’s anti-coward instead of an anti-hero, except there was a little more to say, some revisionism about revisionism, in the excellent The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007), which took on the nature of creating legends and heroes out of what were essentially sociopaths. And, of course, revisionist westerns where the only Westerns you could possibly make after Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), because parody isn’t funny unless the genre has become codified to the point of inviting mockery. But it goes back even further, this revisionism, to arguably one of the last great stolid westerns of the classic era, directed by the man who pretty much invented them, John Ford. That movie was The Searchers (1956). It’s the one where John Wayne tries to assault a young Native American girl, but is restrained (and, after Wayne’s attempt at the 1972 Oscars to punch the face off of Sacheen Littlefeather, the young Native American woman Marlon Brandon sent up to accept his Oscar to protest the treatment of Native Americans, could actually be considered a documentary rather than a piece of compelling revisionist complexity, considering).
Slow West is stunning, with riveting landscapes that evoke not just Ansel Adams but Andrew Wyeth. And Maclean’s exquisitely surreal touches and mordant humour are invigorating. The problem with Slow West, however, is a deadly one. It preached. It told, it didn’t show. It was less revisionism than a lecture on revisionism, with one character actually pontificating on his monogram, ‘Decline of Aboriginal Tribes.’ Thanks for that, because we didn’t quite get it just by seeing it. Beating, as they said in the Old West, a dead horse. Too bad the one convention they didn’t adhere to was that in Westerns, no one likes the preacher.