Slow West is a Western that borrows from all Westerns, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that this borrowing makes the film at hand a confused mishmash of tone and direction. It tries to be an introspective, art house Western, like The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, but it also goes for a more mainstream, adventurous tone at times. There are even hints of the bleak humor from the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. But Slow West can never decide what it wants to be as we follow the story to its somber conclusion.
Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay Cavendish, a young man from the Scottish Highlands who has traveled to the harsh western landscape of America to find his lost love. Jay is not cut out for the scoundrels and outlaws he will run across in this lawless land. Almost immediately, he is rescued from soldiers turned Indian hunters by Silas, a mysterious stranger played by Michael Fassbender. Silas warns him of the dangers in front of him on his journey, and offers his assistance for monetary compensation. Jay is reluctant for the most part, but he realizes over time that he needs Silas to get him to his ultimate destination.
The odd couple come across a handful of wanderers and bounty hunters, and the story opens up as we discover Silas’s motivation for helping Jay. At 84 minutes, Slow West wastes no time in moving these characters across the American West, it is lean and direct. But this danger and treachery Silas speaks of is not wholly displayed in the film, mostly because the film feels to slick and choreographed. The cinematography is marvelous, but it is too marvelous for the story it is trying to tell. Every shot and scene feels entirely staged. There is no grit or grime, characters are too clean, the landscape has the look of a set more than wide open space. It may have all been shot outside, but the camera stays too glossy to add the texture necessary to a story about cruel conditions and ruthless outlaws.
And as for that tone I mentioned earlier, it is all over the place. There is dark humor, a scene involving hallucinations, somber seriousness, action, everything really. Films can shift tones all the time, but they have to have conviction. It is almost as if director John Maclean is trying things on the screen, rather than dedicating his story to one or the other. Maclean shows real talent here, his story just needs refining.
Fassbender and Smit-McPhee work well with each other, but their relationship never goes beyond a surface level. In the end, it was tough to care about anybody in Slow West or where they ended up. Had the film decided on what sort of story it wanted to tell, and told it with the appropriate look and feel, it could have been a gem of a film. As it is, the crisis of Slow West is in its base identity.