Between civilization and savagery, ruthless opportunism is the great American equalizer
The Great American West is a funny thing. Tied up in the prosperity and “starting anew” stories about the “American Dream,” the rallying cry that was once “Westard ho!” gets muffled in the bloodshed and scheming of cowboy opportunism. When you strip away the folksiness and boot spurs, the West becomes a ruthless machine that chews up the helpless and the naive.
And it’s hard to get more helpless and naive than Slow West‘s Jay Cavendish. A young Scottish aristocrat who leaves town for the love of a woman who doesn’t feel the same way about him, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a hopeless romantic. His lanky frame awkwardly slips into oversized suits, tailored reminders that he’s not built for the rigors of the west. That’s reinforced when he’s ambushed by a pack of soldiers, only to have his imminent robbery thwarted by rogueish outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to take Jay to his paramour — for a fee, of course.
There’s nothing outwardly novel about John Maclean’s 2015 Western, which like every film featured in the “Missed Madison Festival,” didn’t find the time (or maybe the distribution) to stroll through town last year. In fact, the Scottish director plays right to the genre’s staples. His unforgiving landscape (New Zealand, in reality) is dotted with “savages” and bounty hunters, miscreants and outlaws who all seek rejuvenation in the Great American Myth. Jay heads westward for a one-sided romance and as his guide, Silas is hellbent on a half-assed reformation, distinguishing himself from the band of roughnecks he used to run with through tough love and good deeds. Even that old gang’s leader (Ben Mendelsohn) spitshines his grubby morality, covering his headhunting ways with a lavish fur coat and swills of absinthe.
Trappings aside, the template is familiar, and it gives Maclean ample room to play. Jay waxes poetic about Orion’s Belt, whipping out his revolver against the night sky like a lead-lined teacher’s pointer. Whether his romanticism is genuine or means of shutting out the depressing realities of self-defense is beside the point. His musings on the universality of love and death are ostensibly cheesy — made worse by Smit-McPee getting out-acted here — but his idealism is out of place to a point. And that’s a fact every undesirable is all too happy to point out.
Maclean’s real concern is social divisions. Jay may shirk the snobby money he comes from, but he’s a reluctant symbol of the wealthy upper-class, a fact his uncle, Lord Cavendish, reminds him of when referring to Jay’s “peasant” love interest (Caren Pistorius). And as victims of a violent misunderstanding, Pistorious’ Rose Ross and her father find their humble pride mistaken for lowlife lawlessness. Maclean’s script tackles any social tablesetting in flashbacks between Jay and Rose, seemingly mundane memories about unrequited love. Subtler critiques exist in the more immediate present, in a bounty hunter disguised as a man of God or in the simple unease of shaving with a straight razor. Jed Kurzel’s fantastic score walks a balancing act of its own, spotlighting a pizzicato waltz that’s as awkward an enterprise as manifest destiny itself. The division between civilization and “savagery” is a tenuous one — if a division at all.
True to Jay’s drifting, Slow West takes a while to get where it’s headed, with anticipation and a stationary camera bloating its 90 minutes for an experience that feels occasionally laborious. But the payoff is there, ending in a vicious, meticulously staged shootout. One survivor’s promise to “wait until civilization comes” is a blunt observation, but it’s also the hopeful center of a disingenuously cynical venture. The blood and gunpowder seem like sick jokes when splattered across the dreams promised in field guides and legends of the frontier.
Be sure to check out other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews throughout the day:
Chris Lay on Eisenstein in Guanajuato; Emily Caulfield on Love; and James Kreul on The Fool at Madison Film Forum.
Vincent Mollica on In My Father’s House at WUD Film Presents.
Four Star Video Podcast‘s discussion of The Voices.