Absurdism in Action
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“A race extinct, their culture banished, their places renamed, only then will they be viewed with selective nostalgia, mythologized and romanticized in the safe guise of art and literature.”
John Maclean’s ode to the Western genre of filmmaking is absurd. That’s not an insult, despite the word’s proclivities towards such negative connotations, but simply a piece of verbiage that seems most accurate in describing this eighty-four minute experience. It begins quietly, it ends in a burst of violence not out of place in a Quentin Tarantino film, but its final frame, however unearned, leaves plenty of food for thought. That beginning sparks off with Michael Fassbender’s voiceover in 1870, describing a young lad of sixteen traveling from Scotland to the Wild, Wild West of the Colarado Territory to find his love Rose. There isn’t any explanation of how he got there, nor is there much of a necessity to do so. The film simply drops the audience in on the image of a young Jay (a terrific Kodi Smitt-McPhee) taking his pony through a Western forest. Dressed in a dusty suit and a pony with more luggage than a cross country mover, Jay seems to be more than a little bemused with his surroundings and as Fassbender’s Silas pointed out, that he had survived that far without getting impaled and or shot. That he has gone that far across the country without experiencing that is a bit of a stretch and the film’s first logical leap of a few, but Smitt-McPhee’s innocence manages to sell that aspect of his character quite a bit. It is in that forest where Jody first sees a shot go through the head of a man and the hands around that gun take him on as a chaperone. Exactly why Silas takes Jody on is unsure. Perhaps he feels some sympathy for the Scottish chap so clearly out of his element. Perhaps he wants a good share of the cash that is surely thick in his pocket. Or perhaps, as the rest of Maclean’s narrative reveals, everything is much more complicated than one would otherwise expect.
As a narrative itself, Slow West is fairly complex even though some of the logical leaps in terms of plot and character undercut what had the potential to be perfection. The plot is simple enough and never tries to be more than what it is, which buoys the film’s ability to lend that verisimilitude to its lead characters. There are moments when the characters do fall into stereotypes and snap into thinness, but the rest of the work is so strong overall that it doesn’t make as much of a negative impact as it otherwise would. As a surprise to no one, Fassbender takes the cake in terms of performances, imbuing Silas with as much ambiguity, strength, and tenderness as the character requires. Every dialogue given to him is believable in its emotion, even if it isn’t in plot. The hardened man with a heart of melting gold is a bit of cliché but it takes smart writing and an enveloping performance to make Silas much more than that and the film delivers on that front. Jay threatens to stay one-note until a pivotal moment in a department store and Smitt-McPhee nails the emotional transition Jay is pummeled with. There’s no moment until the aftermath for him to process what had truly happened and the anger that is borne out of his guilt and terror is fantastic. Rose is smartly sparsely sprinkled throughout the film’s first half, the idea of whom Jay is in love with taking form before the audience is hit with the question of whether or not that is whom she truly is. A character who could have simply been what has become known as “the manic pixie dream girl” is much more nuanced than that Caren Pistorius nails that out of the park. Ben Mendolsohn, drumming up quite the buzz on Netflix’s Bloodline, is cool, calm, and effortlessly haunting as the bounty hunter Payne.
Not everything works in Slow West, however, as minimal as those obstacles may be. The aforementioned bit of a leap in plot logic occurs throughout one of the main thoroughfares, with the bounty on Rose’s and her father’s head. How anyone is tracking them is beyond me considering it’s never really explained, but the film suggests quite strongly that everyone is following Jay to Rose’s house in the fields. I’m not quite sure how many people Jay mentioned that to, outside of a sweetheart Jay mentions over a campsite and absinthe. That’s a major case of coincidental plotting there, however, and it results in dramatic tension that nevertheless has the knowledge of plot hollowness underlying the entire endeavor. The ending is thusly unearned, feeling suitably dramatic before it sort of jumps in character implausibility as if Maclean was afraid of ending the narrative on the cynical tone half of it was imbued with. That tonal balance between the cynical macabre and the comedy of the absurd is extremely difficult to balance but the film manages to do so excellently, helped greatly by Jed Kurzel’s incredible score. The film is shot gorgeously, its New Zealand vistas merging with Robbie Ryan’s breathtaking cinematography to create some of the most sublime visuals of any film this year. While the bursts of violence, the vistas, and the performances can carry this film on solid shoulders, the most poignant scene happens between Jay and a stranger with a book in the middle of nowhere. It’s a quiet scene that reflects upon the genocide of Native Americans that adds great depths to the handful of Native Americans seen throughout the film and the remains of a campsite that becomes much more haunting in retrospect. It was an unexpected bit of pathos but it was executed in a way where Maclean’s script brought forth the genocide but didn’t color it from the perspective of someone who couldn’t necessarily connect with the weight of the atrocities that had taken place. As for much of Slow West, the silence speaks volumes.
Title: Slow West
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: John Maclean
Produced by: Iain Canning, Michael Fassbender, Rachel Gardner, Conor McCaughan, Emile Sherman
Written by: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann
Music by: Jed Kurzel
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Edited by: John Maclean
Production Company: DMC Film, Film4 Productions, New Zealand Film Commission, See-Saw Films
Distributed by: A24 Films (US)
Running Time: 84 minutes
Release Dates: May 15, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: EW