A teenager stumbles into a cluster of trees as he walks his horse through clouds of acrid smoke. He comes into a clearing where he discovers the source, a smoldering Indian encampment. Burned teepees are scorched and ruined, their narrow bones still upright and revealing their triangular corpses. The scene is played in black and grays, with an immense feeling of dread that looms over the wayward boy lost in nature’s wrath. The sequence was likely shot on a soundstage, but it feels like a Caravaggio painting come to life in the West.
I’ve never quite seen anything like this before, which further proves the resilience of Hollywood’s oldest genre, the western.
Slow West is an intense burn of a cowboy picture. It comes together like an epic romance: a lovelorn teen, Jay Cavendish (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee), journeys to America’s Western frontier to find his sweetheart, Rose. Rooted in romance and the Old West, the film is more an absurdist road adventure and surreal fantasy: In an early scene, Jay looks up over the frontier, aims his revolver at the stars and watches as they light up like a shooting gallery. This scene leads into the burning of the Indian village, which is so hauntingly beautiful that it seems plucked from another movie in another genre.
Jay quickly meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter with a secret in his pocket: a wanted poster with Rose’s picture on it. Silas agrees to help Jay find Rose, even though his intentions are deadly and selfish. What transpires on their journey is a magnificent set of adventures, the likes of which have never before been seen in a western. You’ll know you’re very far away from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when Jay meets a trio of Congolese singers on the road. Who are these men, and where did they come from? Slow West doesn’t elaborate, just presents images and shambles onward toward Rose’s doom.
Much of the film can be broken up into episodes, including one where Jay and Silas are stalked by the film’s villain, a fellow bounty hunter. I kept thinking I knew where this scene would go, and Slow West goes far and wide to prove you can’t predict anything in this strange western universe. The confrontation, or lack thereof, ends when the creek they’re camped next to floods, washing their weapons away and leaving them with soaked clothes. They ride away in their longjohns with their clothing tied to clotheslines stretched between their horses.
Another episode takes place with a traveling preacher, who imparts one last piece of advice on a slip of paper that reads “West” with an arrow pointing. If only Jay had picked up the paper before the breeze, which forever scrambles the arrow’s intended direction. In another scene, Jay and Silas are caught up in a store robbery that goes wrong in every conceivable way. And then they step outside and it gets even worse.
Slow West is written and directed by John Maclean, whose debut here as an innovative force is about as fine as debuts come. Maclean’s biggest film credit before this was in High Fidelity, in which his band at the time, the Beta Band, has a song featured in a key sequence. How he got here to Slow West, and why — and what took so long — are questions almost as fascinating as the film itself. Almost.
It’s written perfectly, with balance for the deceptively complex narrative and the intriguing characters; the performances are spot-on, with Smit-McPhee and Fassbender making an unlikely but likable pairing; and the visuals are poetic and serve the film’s larger theme that man is not nearly as cruel as nature. Consider these three shots: a tree that has fallen on a lumberjack, his axe-wielding skeleton splayed out beneath the trunk. Ants crawling on and in the barrel of a gun. And, in one of the final shots of the film, jump cuts to each and every person killed since the beginning of the movie.
Death comes for everyone, but in Slow West it lingers, and chokes, and it does not come quickly.