Former Beta Band member turned director John Maclean’s debut feature, “Slow West” looks and feels like a random train of thought, a glorious meandering diversion from “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.” Uncomfortable in the saddle is 16-year-old Scottish noble Jay Cavendish, drawn to Colorado in 1870 by matters of the heart and class superiority cunningly masquerading as humanity and decency. The West to Jay is a surprisingly lush land filled with glittering blues and vivid greens. This is a young country feeding a younger heart, pumping the poetic and romantic notions around a body never built to suffer the hardship or deprivation facing mortal settlers or outlaws.
Jay peers up at the constellations shooting them one by one as if to replace their mythology with his own, a classical education running amok under a foreign sky. Jay’s is a slow legend retold by Silas, an opportunistic gunman materialising from the smoke and trees offering his services as a guide for the rookie. “He saw things differently,” eulogises Silas, “a land of hope and good will.” Jay and Silas certainly prove Oscar Wilde correct when he wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” In contrast Silas expands on his own character, “There were few of us left, men beyond the law but the last of us to fall were the most dangerous of all.” Jay and Silas converse but their divide is born out of their class differences rather than their geographical distance.
The object of Jay’s epic journey from Scotland to America is Rose Ross, a woman of distinctly lower class and privilege who beguiles Jay despite her very candid rebuttals to his awkward admissions of profound love, “You’re the little brother I never had.” Besotted and hypnotised to do right Jay ventures across the wilderness in a bliss-filled trance, as if love itself makes him impervious to the privations of the West. The reason for his determination is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks, his innocence ruthlessly exploited by the uncouth and urbane alike. Even his burgeoning relationship with Silas takes an unexpected turn at the climax despite the fact we know Jay is being used as a patsy by far more ruthless power players in his story. Perhaps the stars were always written thus and Jay misread them this far away from the old country.
Maclean manages to perfectly broker this fine line between hope and melancholy throughout his mini-epic Western. A tense shootout in an impossibly remote trading station pays homage to the best of Sergio Leone but is then punctuated by a sense of tragic desperation that sent so many immigrants West to escape European serfdom. Later in the climatic shootout Rose’s homestead, so noble and pristine amongst her crops, is decimated by gunfire as if it is an affront to good old fashioned killers trying to make a dishonest living out of (relatively) honest folk. A chance encounter with the civilized anthropologist Werner again under the cover of stars by Jay leads to an existential conversation, “In a short time this will be a long time ago.” Yet even this intellectual encounter leads to an egg and a note.
“Slow West” is an elegantly paced Western, comically revisionist and suitably deadly. After the final shootout a chilling montage of every dead body that the film has seen slain traces back East, a bloody, brick road built by a supposedly innocent man just following his heart, hubris disguised as true love. Kodi Smit-McPhee as the wide-eyed Jay and Michael Fassbender is the world weary Silas given a skewed shot at redemption. Every film is always better off with Ben Mendelsohn attached and his outlaw Payne is no exception. Finally Caren Pistorius as the fiery Rose, a peasant girl who has the temerity to know her own mind excels at being someone who wants no part in another’s attempt at a tragic love story.