Slow West takes aim at the Western genre with a totally fresh scope while simultaneously capturing a nostalgic majesty that recalls the grand Cinemascope Westerns of the ’50s and ’60s. But its incredible depth of field, stunning composition, and richly saturated color palette take the vistas even further, building a classically picturesque atmosphere that brilliantly belies the story’s true intentions.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a scrawny 16-year-old on a mission to reunite with his true love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who has fled to America with her father. Jay has travelled all the way from Scotland to the American West to find her, and when we take up with him, he’s closing in on her location just as he’s reaching the most treacherous part of the journey. Fortunately, reticent rogue Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) happens upon Jay at an opportune moment, and insists on chaperoning him for the remainder of his adventure in exchange for a healthy fee.
As Jay and Silas journey, they encounter genre-appropriate opposition including harsh terrain, a posse of bounty hunters, and bands of wild Indians. As the miles pass, they form an uneasy and unconventional bond, and we begin to discover that things aren’t exactly what they seem for either of them. Silas has a hidden motive and a mysterious past, and Jay carries a good deal of guilt alongside his staunch idealism.
Writer-director John McClean displays a love (bordering on lust) for the currently underappreciated Western genre, cashing in on its inherent tropes, themes, and archetypes while also inverting them with incredible deftness. The surprising and suspenseful final act will stick with you for its brazen honesty, perfectly executed twists, and an emotional resonance that sneaks up on you over the film’s brief 84 minutes.
Slow West’s deliberate pace is perfectly balanced to build tension and develop a deep emotional connection with its characters, while darkly comic notes inject just the right amount of levity. Its simple genius, though, is in the synthesis of expertly executed craft on all fronts: jaw-dropping cinematography, subtle characterizations by a talented cast, razor-sharp editing and sound design, and most of all, the new and unique treatment of what appears on the surface to be a familiar story. The result is a stealthily meaningful and appreciably unique film.