An alt-western with plenty of quirk but little bite, John MacLean’s Slow West is a wasted opportunity kept afloat by a bevy of skilled actors. It goes for a revisionist approach to the genre, but misses the mark.
That’s disappointing, as the set-up is a rich one: hopeless romantic Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) arrives in the American West seeking his lady love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who fled their native Scotland with her father in the wake of a bloody scandal.
To say that the cultured and idealistic Jay is out of his element is to put it mildly; barely five minutes into the movie and he’s on the wrong end of a gun, but is rescued by a drifter, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender doing his best Clint Eastwood impersonation, down to the cheroot).
Silas sells his services as a guide and protector to Jay, promising to get the lad to his destination safely for a steep price. What Jay doesn’t know is that Silas is a bounty hunter on the Ross family’s trail, and that Jay is his means to an end. The inevitable complication arrives quickly in the form of Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a rival bountyman with a kill-crazy gang of cohorts pacing Silas and Jay on the trip to Colorado.
Fassbender and Mendelsohn are Slow West‘s saving graces, even if the material is less than challenging for these two gifted actors. Still, the former falls short of the laconic delivery needed for the mysterious lone gunfighter archetype, and the latter is a little too hammy for a black-hat villain.
Episodic and diffuse, the movie feels incomplete, more of an exercise than a fully formed work. MacLean seems to be channeling Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, and a little bit of Robert Altman for much of his inspiration, throwing in plenty of surrealism, understated visual flair, sudden bursts of violence, and faux-grit flourishes.
What those veterans have that newcomer MacLean (this is his first feature) has yet to develop is a lighter, more assured touch. MacLean too often soft-peddles his ostensibly savage version of the American west, opting for twee sentiment over biting observation and black humor that isn’t quite dark enough, and serves it up with a wink-wink nudge-nudge delivery.
At 84 minutes, it somehow feels like a lifetime. Still, MacLean shows enough creativity and fearlessness to suggest a bright future as a filmmaker. Hopefully it won’t take long to get there.