Slow West

John Maclean’s Slow West ends with a visual death toll—a series of shots in which the film tracks back, in reverse order, through all the characters who have been killed in the course of its brutal narrative, right down the line to its backstory. Slow West is a clipped, super-economical neo-Western—or rather a meta-Western musing on certain conventions of the genre that refuses to die but continues to mutate, these days usually into more or less ironic forms. There are strong echoes here of the Coens’ matter-of-fact detachment—echoes especially of True Grit, of course, but overall of their tendency toward surprise strokes of narrative shorthand. Inescapably too, this story of an innocent’s journey beyond the Rockies to a violent world of catastrophe and perdition is reminiscent (in a lighter, almost flip way) of Jim Jarmusch’s somber Western odyssey of 20 years ago. Slow West is, if you like, a deadpan Dead Man.

The setting is Colorado in 1870, and the hero is a 16-year-old Scot, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has headed across the Atlantic and across a continent in search of Rose, the girl he loves—whose own flight from home, flashbacks eventually reveal, has directly been caused by Jay’s passion. Out in these savage lands, mild-mannered, poetic-souled dreamer Jay is “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves,” says the film’s voiceover narrator Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a hardened drifter who appoints himself Jay’s chaperone, for a price. And while we know that Jay’s survival chances are all the better with him in charge, it’s pretty clear that Silas is himself one of the weather-beaten canines that roam these prairies.

Slow West could hardly be more generic; as the story of a determined ingénu and a hardened man of violence who plays guardian to him, and who finds himself transformed by proximity to heroic innocence, it’s closer to True Grit in more ways than just the laconic narrative style. Many of the characters seem to have walked out of other films: Ben Mendelsohn’s heavy is, of course, every weaselly, snarling Mendelsohn character we’ve seen in Australian, American, or British films since Animal Kingdom (10), but he’s also decked out in the primeval fur-coated shagginess of Hugh Millais’s bounty hunter in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. As for Fassbinder, his Silas is so taciturn and Clint-like, hat brim low and cigar jammed in the corner of his mouth, that we don’t really think of him as a character, more as a silhouette cut out from the cover of a battered cowboy paperback.

Slow West

What Slow West reminded me of more than anything else was Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers, itself an episodic, dryly comic mock-Western in which the bloodiest atrocities are recounted with a Road Runner–like flatness of style, to be contemplated ruefully for the briefest moment before the narrative moves on. It’s possible that the only way we’re prepared to imagine Western narratives today is with disabused knowingness, since the old heroic sensibilities of the pioneer legend no longer convince. But even so, True West, for all its bitter irony, does find a surprising way to restore a redemptive lick of romanticism to the dark picture—to find “hope for the West,” as the payoff line has it.

Scottish writer-director John Maclean, whose first feature this is, came to film by making videos for his old group the Beta Band, a pop-experimental quartet who were expert at confounding their admirers: having made three much-loved EPs of considerable brilliance and eccentricity, they seemed to brazenly throw away their advantage with a willfully askew first album, then never quite regained lost ground. Their eclectic sampling spirit has its corresponding style in Slow West, in which you sense that the Western narrative is just one possible format that Maclean is trying on to see where it takes him. But the excursion works exceedingly well, not least because the film’s digressive picaresque structure always threatens to fall apart, yet turns out to be stitched together more tightly than you expect by the sheer terseness of the execution. A great example is a scene in which, after a night’s getting drunk (on absinthe, which must be a Western first), Jay listens to an old-timer telling the wonderfully black story of a vain fool determined to get his own “Wanted” poster. Jay takes the anecdote in—then, realizing he’s been sitting by the wrong campfire all along, goes on his way.

Maclean springs many such non sequiturs throughout—some of them narrative (like the flashback to Scotland that explains, with deliciously concise logic, just how this whole story started), some of them passing roadside attractions, like the sudden appearance of some African men singing an African song and exchanging greetings with Jay in subtitled French. Maclean will give us outbursts of bloody violence, then gently twist the knife with a little black-comic sign-off: after an eruption of lethal fire in a trading post, he cuts to two angelically blond children waiting outside, looking like abandoned dolls. (For all the story’s bleakness, it’s undercut by an ending that suggests that the whole thing has been an arbitrary game of sorts, and that the world is perhaps not quite as grim as events have suggested.)

Slow West

In one sense, the star of Slow West is Kodi Smit-McPhee, solemn, hopeful and irreducibly gangly as an earnest student sort, who has led a sheltered life and shivers in wide-eyed fear, but will see it through regardless—the lamb who’s as resilient as all the coyotes out there in the hungry hills. But the other star performances comes from editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory, who give the film its distinctive, abrupt rhythm—its episodes feel like a series of telegraphically short book chapters—and DP Robbie Ryan, shooting in a distinctive 1:66 ratio. The film was shot in New Zealand (it’s a U.K./N.Z. co-production), and these landscapes bring a twist of unfamiliarity to the Western, much as Lisandro Alonso’s Patagonia brought a twist to the idea of the Western in his Jauja. There are some familiar yet oddly different vistas here—vast fields of blue flowers, cornfields that are pure Andrew Wyeth, and yet not quite, more luminous and Southern Hemisphere than we’re used to seeing in Westerns. The film leads us through a heightened landscape of intense green and blazing ochre, with unexpected images sometimes looming crazily in the foreground—a corpse, a mushroom, a breakfast egg. Slow West’s knowing narrative dissolves as you watch it—when you get to the end, it signs off with a shrug, and I suspect it’s not the sort of film to mark your psyche for a long time. But you certainly want to see what else Maclean is capable of, and it’s a beguiling trip—lush, strange, and possibly the least dusty Western ever.