“Once upon a time, Jay Cavendish traveled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love. A jackrabbit in a den of wolves.” That is the opening voiceover of Slow West, a film set in the frontier of Colorado in 1870. Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling on his own at the beginning of the film, soon encounters Silas (Michael Fassbender), an outlaw takes Jay up on his offer of payment for help getting to Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father John (Rory McCann), who have relocated to somewhere in Colorado after being forced to flee Scotland. Jay feels responsible for them having to leave, and through flashbacks, we see that is partly true as the tragedy that forced them to leave is eventually revealed. Unbeknownst to Jay, Silas has ulterior motives for helping Jay be reunited with Rose, and neither of them is aware of a group of outlaws, led by a man named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) that are following both of them that also seem to be interested in the location of John and Rose.
There are a lot of familiar characters here, but the way they are played makes them interesting. Jay is an optimist who sees the world differently than most people. He has an impact on the people he comes into contact with over the course of the film, mainly Fassbender’s Silas, who fits into that Man With No Name archetype made famous by Eastwood, even smoking cigarillos throughout the film. Silas is a man who has been hardened by the frontier life, but over the course of time does begin to open up to Jay. Smit-McPhee and Fassbender give really good performances and they work really well together, even if the bond they have by the end of the film feels a bit rushed or that it skipped a beat or two. Ben Mendelsohn is also good as Payne, a man who end up having a previous history with Silas. His presence is revealed early on, but his character lingers on the periphery most of the time, but it is a presence that lingers somewhat ominously. When he finally enters the story proper, it is like a detour into a different kind of film as he brings a different dynamic to the proceedings, but it’s a welcome detour. At one point, Jay stumbles into the camp of Payne’s crew, and while they are clearly meant to be a “den of wolves,” it is interesting that who they have in tow with them shows a touch of compassion that not even Silas was willing to extend earlier in the film, which adds to the complexity of the characters.
First time writer/director John Maclean has crafted a beautiful, concise film that is only 84 minutes long. There is no filler, even though the film seems to meander towards its climax. Filmed in New Zealand, it offers great visuals as Jay and Silas make their way through this journey they’re on. There are several shots of scenery, whether a backdrop of mountains or field of wheat or just a field of wild plants that the horses slowly slink through, that stuck with me after the movie was over. There are also several scenes that stayed with me as well, including a tragic encounter at a trading post with a reveal that felt like a knife in the gut. At the end of the film there is a sequence of shots that shows everyone who has died in this film, working backward until we get to the very first one. It’s a sobering set of shots that shows the human cost of what has transpired.
Thankfully, Maclean manages to mix in a bit of humor into the earlier proceedings, one example being a moment when Jay and Silas come across the skeleton of a man who was chopping down a tree only to have it fall on him and kill him. I also appreciate that the film does not go the standard route that most films would when it comes to a man searching for his “one true love.” The film shows in flashbacks that Jay’s intentions in doing all of this are probably misguided, which gives an added level of tragedy to the ending, a unique shootout that gives a fitting outcome to the reunion between Jay and Rose that works, evoking an earlier flashback scene for an ironic twist. Even though it is telegraphed, it works because of the Jay’s journey.
There’s a scene in the middle of Slow West where Jay comes across an anthropologist documenting the frontier life and the man asks him “East, what news?” Jay replies “Violence and suffering. West?” “Dreams, and toil,” the man replies. A pretty apt description of the westward migration of America in 1870. The American Dream and the violence, toil, and suffering that was required to achieve that dream was arguably at its apex at that time. It was a violent, bloody expansion westward for many of the people who made the journey, and the dream was as big as the wide open plains they traversed. Slow West shows the beauty and the bleak brutality of the Western life. Jay’s dreams may be a bit misguided, but it does inspire others to begin their own dreams and toil for it, and with the hope of less violence and suffering to achieve it.
[Slow West is currently in theaters, VOD, and on various streaming platforms.]
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars