Talking Movies: John Maclean’s ‘Slow West’ offers a fresh take on the Western genre

Slow West, directed by John MacLean

FilmScene — Opening May 22, times vary

By now, every Western — at least every American one — is to some degree a satire of itself: so familiar are the settings, conflicts, character-types and themes of the genre that it is both essential to the American cinematic tradition and yet so well-worn it is easy to take for granted, even to the point of ridicule.

Scottish filmmaker John Maclean’s first feature film, Slow West, never loses sight of this basic tension. Yet it is still able to tell a compelling story, while at the same time gently mocking the familiar tropes of its genre.

Slow West introduces us to Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gentle Scottish lad in his mid teens who has left his homeland to track down his lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who has since moved somewhere in the Western U.S. with her father (Rory McCann, out from Westeros). They are fleeing either a crime or an accident — depending whose story you believe — which has placed a large bounty on their heads.

Unfortunately for Jay, he has lots of poetic sensitivity, but really none of the skills required to survive this sort of journey in the wild West of the late 19th century. Lucky for him, he somewhat randomly encounters a part-time desperado, bounty hunter and Native American sympathizer, who has the necessary skills and requisite cynicism to make a deal: He will get Jay to his lost love in return for a bunch of straight cash money (at which point we suspect he will shoot him along with his girlfriend to collect the bounty).

Though his unsentimental and relentlessly pragmatic nature will remind us unmistakably of the “Man with No Name” from the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone westerns of the mid-1960s, Jay’s protector indeed has a name — Silas Selleck, who is expertly played by Michael Fassbender.

From here, we see a lot that is familiar: the pairing of the jaded and the innocent from True Grit, the road movie feel of Unforgiven, the bounty hunters from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the climactic shootout of My Darling Clementine. But Slow West does a good job of breathing new life into familiar themes, and at a spare 84-minute run time, is too economical to get boring.

Though none of this movie seems to have actually been filmed in the western U.S., Slow West asks a fundamental question that is at least suggested by all American westerns: At what point does a life that requires extreme skill and determination just to survive it, become about more than just survival?

We are told the bad news early on in a conversation between Jay and a vagabond swindler that he encounters in the desert “What’s the news from the East? Violence and suffering.” “What’s the news from the West? Dreams and toil.”

Can Jay’s delicate humanity overcome such a harshly envisioned world and is he able to convince others they should try to as well? Maclean’s film leaves us with an ambiguous answer by its end, but on the way delivers all the gunfights, betrayals, petty thefts, drunkenness, debauchery and bloodshed that we have come to expect from its genre.

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