By Justin Browning
Slow West wins the award for most appropriately named film of the year. It tells the tale of a group of characters travelling west. And it is slow.
The destination is clearly defined; they are searching for the homestead of a young Scottish girl Rose, and her father. The pair have resettled in the American West following a dramatic turn of events in a story largely driven by the mysterious pasts and motives of the central characters. The plot is rather bare – which is one reason for the leisurely pace of this mere 90 minute affair, which risks feeling dragged out despite its brevity.
Leaving the pacing aside for a moment, let’s return to the characters. The story hinges on the journey of a young Scottish boy, Jay Cavendish (played by the talented Kodi Smit-McPhee), searching for the elusive Rose, who he believes to be his true love. He is naive and overly trusting of others in a world where many keep their true feelings hidden – probably because they are planning to rob you or shoot you (or both).
Jay would not survive long in the West without the help of his trusty guide and bodyguard, Silas (played by the always-brilliant Michael Fassbender). Silas is a hard man and a bounty hunter, ready to do that which Jay struggles with in order to survive. Unfortunately, Silas may not be all that trustworthy after all, since Jay is not the only person invested in finding Rose and her father.
This leads us to the source of the film’s tension and sense of urgency: a group of ruthless bounty hunters that are also on the trail of the runaway Scots. Despite Jay’s good intentions, he risks putting himself and his friends in mortal danger by failing to deal with the killers. The feebly characterised villains offer some menace throughout the meandering first hour, proving essential to the truly spectacular, Django Unchained style final bloody showdown. Alongside the spectacle, the finale reveals the true nature of the central characters, and contains one of the most moving endings in recent memory. In fact, the final act is such a brilliant climax to the film that it is more than worth waiting for even (or especially) if the preceding 75 minutes bores you.
And bore you it might, depending on how completely the film absorbs you. The majority of the runtime is spent chronicling Jay and Silas’ journey together, with anecdotal scenes building up a gritty picture of the American West and the people that lived there. Slow West refuses to be rushed in assembling this world around the core characters. It is unflinchingly violent but not to excess, and the characters are unforgiving but not one-dimensionally good or bad (though certainly ugly). For fans of the genre, the realistic approach may be engrossing, but others might wish for a more focused story. The former view is favourable. The central plot of searching for Jay’s lost friends is simplistic and serves adequately as the motivation driving Jay and Silas through their other adventures – but it is also powerful in its simplicity as a tale of young love and determination, particularly as the story accelerates towards its conclusion.
Despite its exciting finale, Slow West is a slow burner with a conservative style, usually favouring tension over exaggerated action. But in doing so the focus remains on realism, the simple yet powerful plot, and the wonderfully reserved direction. Stunning landscapes reveal the beauty of a tough land filled with tougher people. The soundtrack is equally affecting when it comes to the fore, particularly the heart-wrenching strings in accompaniment with the final moments. Ultimately, the film’s patient style plays to these strengths, flaunting the aesthetics and allowing room for the world of the West to be fully realised.
Slow West may sound like style over substance, but more accurately, it is both style and substance. The portrayal of America’s frontier is substantial, Jay and Silas are characters of substance, and the plot, while uncomplicated, has emotional substance. The style is manifest in the beauty of the landscape and quality of the score. Still, if your attention is flagging, there is no guarantee Slow West will keep you awake – but if you do drift off, it will give you lovely cowboy dreams.