Review: ‘Slow West’ features a gruff Michael Fassbender and absurdist Western violence

PARK CITY. This doesn't happen often, but I had to stay after the Sundance Film Festival premiere screening of “Slow West” to listen to the Q&A with director John MacLean to get a sense of what the intended tone was for his World Cinema Dramatic Competition entry. 

Large portions of the second half of the 1870-set Western made me laugh, sometimes fairly hard, but I couldn't quite tell if the aspiration was parody or misgauged sincerity. The answer? Neither. Maclean said he was going for something almost fairy-tale-esque at the bloody climax of “Slow West,” which means that something heightened was an aspiration, even if fairy tales very rarely leave me laughing. 

Sometimes you're just not receiving signals on the frequency that a movie is transmitting and I accept that just may be the case, especially since the first questioner praised “Slow West” for its realism.

Realism, eh? The movie I saw was an American Western directed by a Scot, filmed in New Zealand, starring an Aussie as the Scottish main character with an Irish actor as an American outlaw and that's before I get to the giggly heightened climax. Realism and authenticity aren't things I would salute here, though the quirky humor and a few interesting narrative choices still have me within range of a recommendation. 

“Slow West” is the story of 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, becoming an Australian Jay Baruchel before our eyes), who leaves behind his upper crust Scottish roots to go on a quest across the American frontier for the woman he loves. He's joined mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender), an cigarillo-chomping hired gun, who agrees to help Jay reach his destination, for a price. 

It turns out that Jay isn't the only one seeking Rose (Caren Pistorius). There's also an ethnically diverse band of outlaws led by Ben Mendelsohn's Payne ever lurking on the edge of the horizon.

Maclean's vision of the post-Civil War West is a generally diverse one, though I wish that diversity was explored a little more. There are Asian outlaws, Congolese performing music in the hills, Germans doing sociological research on “aboriginal people” and Scandinavians resorting to violent crime to survive.

Actually, everybody in “Slow West” is resorting to violent crime to survive. The violence in “Slow West” is abrupt, bloody and hilariously shocking, escalating in the aforementioned climax, which really felt more like a WB cartoon or a silent comedy than the fairy tale Maclean referenced after the premiere, or the European and Japanese films the director also mentioned as touchstones.

In contrast, there's an often glorious sincerity to Robbie Ryan's cinematography, which is full of stretching prairie vistas and John Ford-inspired placement of characters within the frame. Any time a low-angle captures Fassbender's Silas practically blocking out the sun, or the bounty-hungry posse crowns the top of a hill, you sense the respectful nod to the masters. Ryan can't do much to make the New Zealand setting look very much like 1870 Colorado, but that's no more or less accurate than Maclean's culturally non-specific depictions of Native Americans, which also feel like they were taken more from a John Ford Western and not in a good way. [I return again to the ridiculousness of that first Q&A questioner's “realism” compliment.] But there are potent images here, whether the impenetrable smoke of a burnt-out Native village, or cowboys popping in and out of a wheat field in the climax.

Inconsistent accent aside, Kodi Smit-McPhee has the innocence required for the main role, purposely remaining callow enough for us to accept that he's on a romantic quest for a woman who, we learn fairly quickly, doesn't love him so much. He's a Scottish Fievel Mousekewitz, totally unaware that the person he thinks is wishing on the same bright star couldn't care less.

I think Smit-McPhee was cast to be smooth-cheeked and affectless, but the movie needed more depth in the two darker archetypal roles. Also a producer here, Fassbender is good and his threatening swagger is never less than believable, but I think that most of the interesting details in Silas' character were probably in the pre-production bio and not on-screen. Ben Mendelsohn, so good in “Animal Kingdom,” “Place Beyond the Pines” and Netflix's upcoming “Bloodlines” is upstaged by a very furry coat and really only gets one brief scene to deliver on menace that is otherwise just implied. With those characters, you read some value into them because you've seen how they operate in other, better Westerns, just as you read value onto Rose's father just because he's played by Rory McCann and Rory McCann is The Hound.

Even with a running time of under 90 minutes “Slow West” is a slow build, but I felt like there was a growing absurdity in the building body count and the frantic push toward the slightly nutty ending that I enjoyed, but perhaps not for the reasons I was supposed to. Maybe you won't get hung up on that. Maybe you'll just relish Fassbender as a gunslinger without wishing he were an interesting gunslinger. Maybe you'll think that the female lead holding a gun in the climax counts as effective revisionist thinking. Maybe you'll just be working on the “Slow West” frequency more than I as.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”