Near the end of “Slow West--” John Maclean’s low key western--we’re shown a series of still frames of all the people who died violently in the movie. No sad music plays over it and Maclean spends only about a half a second on each victim. In other words, there’s nothing commemorative about the montage. Instead, the sequence feels oddly cold and impersonal, like Maclean is saying that these people don’t really matter in the long run; they’re just one of the thousands of people who perished in the old West. It’s this sense of distance from violence that turns out to be the movie’s greatest strength. On the harsh frontier, death is matter of fact.
Not a lot of violence occurs in “Slow West”--Maclean keeps the focus on the characters-- but when there is, it happens swiftly and casually. In fact the violent beats happen so quickly that before the audience has a chance to process what’s happened the surviving characters in the scene have already gotten back up on their horses and moved on. The shock value of violence is removed. The people who inhabit “Slow West” are so used to violence being part of everyday life and survival that they don’t seem fazed by it in the least.
While Maclean’s somewhat apathetic style does create emotional distance, it also prevents the movie from feeling exploitive. Here’s an ultra bleak, pessimistic western that doesn’t wallow in sadness or linger endlessly on scenes of suffering. When traveling through an uncertain and hostile frontier, there’s no time to stop and dwell upon what’s already taken place.
Otherwise, “Slow West” is a solid, if unremarkable, picture bolstered by two great, understated performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-Mcphee. The latter plays Jay Kavindish, a Scotsman who travels the frontier in search of a girl from back home. “Slow West” is a coming of age movie of sorts; Jay is optimistic and sees the West as a place of opportunity and he will soon come to realize the West is a harsh place full of people driven by greed. Even the people who appear to be friendly and trustworthy ultimately have selfish motivations. Smit-Mcphee does a great job of playing up the naiveté and delusion of Jay without making him pathetic or annoying.
Fassbender plays Silas Selleck, a lone frontiersman whose sole instinct is to survive. He offers to be Jay’s guide and along the way turns into a father figure, teaching him how to shave and twirl his gun. Fassbender achieves a near perfect balance of firmness and compassion. He can be mean and unsympathetic but only because one needs to be in order to survive in such a hostile and unpredictable environment. He knows what it takes to survive. And as the film goes on the two come to an understanding and even begin to care for one another.
“Slow West” is hindered by some other issues; a voice-over narration by Silas is unnecessary because it tells us bits of information about character or narrative that we can easily grasp from the images themselves. Also, the optimistic ending feels tacked on, not in keeping with the overall tone of the picture. It’s hard to know how well the movie will do with a general audience. Even though the picture is lean at 84 minutes and moves at a relatively fast pace, not a lot “happens” in the traditional sense of film western action; it’s not exciting or entertaining the way a movie like “Django Unchained” is. Maclean avoids epic scale and spectacle in favor of minimal realism. However, the picture’s apathetic approach to violence and the intimate scale—focusing closely on the relationship between the two leads— make “Slow West” worth checking out.