Anyone walking into “Slow West” expecting all the fixings of a typical western will be in for a curveball. The first feature from Scottish director John Maclean, produced with funding from the British Film Institute and the New Zealand Film Commission, it certainly offers a different perspective on the genre.
Combining the brute force of the traditional western with the dreamy reveries of a romance and spurts of quirky comedy, the movie offers a potpourri of reference points that suggests an appeal to viewers who may be resistant to more conventional films of its type. But while that makes for an intriguing experiment, the results are at times befuddling — and, even more often, underwhelming.
“Slow West” begins in post-Civil War Colorado, where 17-year-old blueblood Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has arrived from Scotland in search of his sweetheart, Rose, who fled to America with her father after a tragic accident sent them on the run. Much too dainty for the unsympathetic wild west, Jay soon finds himself facing the barrel of an enemy’s gun before he’s rescued by the brutish Silas (Michael Fassbender).
Silas takes one look at the cherubic newcomer, declares “you need chaperoning,” and gruffly takes him under his wing. Jay warily plays along — around these parts, it’s better to be accompanied by a killer than go solo unarmed — and is won over by Silas’ promise to help him find his lost love. But what Silas doesn’t tell him is that a group of bounty hunters are hot on their heels, determined to get to Rose first and claim the hefty price placed on her head.
Much of “Slow West” exhibits a keen refashioning of western motifs: trigger-happy men dominate most scenes. But the severity of these tropes is accompanied by contrasting elements that both cushion and challenge conventions. McPhee’s cherubic Jay lends a starry-eyed softness to an otherwise chilly emotional climate, while Fassbender is more coolly unaffected than the stereotypical hot-tempered outlaw. At a snappy, concise 84 minutes — ironic, given the film’s title — events unfold more rapidly than the drawling pace of many traditional westerns.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does a spectacular job of capturing the expanses traveled by Jay and Silas as they continue their journey. Offering sweeping panoramas of turquoise skies, plains speckled with jade blades of grass, and dust-swept deserts flanked by sharp, craggy hills, the vibrant colors stand in stunning contrast to the arid, rusty hues of landscapes traditionally captured on celluloid. The high definition visuals may seem unnaturally crisp, and certainly too polished to befit the era, but they easily comprise the most arresting aspect of the film — providing a 21st century update on a 1870’s template.
However, the complex visual textures overwhelm the movie’s tone and purpose. Many of the quieter characters simply aren’t engaging enough to ignite much sympathy or investment in their respective fates. At one point, “Slow West” starts to dig beneath Silas’ stoic exterior, but the effort is abruptly abandoned just as his surface begins to crack. And while sweet, Jay’s meekness is mismatched with his heroic intentions to save Rose, not to mention McPhee’s Scottish accent — which inexplicably comes and goes, further sabotages his plausibility.
The script includes hasty insertions of minimal references to the significance of Native American endangerment; the story’s fairy tale-like sensibility hardly meshes with political or historical commentary. Meanwhile, the cartoonish violence feels particularly out of sync with the rest of the narrative.
“Slow West” certainly makes a valiant effort to reach beyond expectations of its genre, even leaving room for some welcome tongue-in-cheek humor when it’s least expected. But at the end, all its waffling between various stylistic touchstones fails to hold much interest. Instead, the movie leaves us with lingering doubts as to whether Maclean wanted his tale to be an ode or a satire of the classic genre at its core.