Since the genre’s inception, American westerns have been dominated by larger-than-life heroes. While this is generally a fun way to celebrate heroes who went on to influence sci-fi heroes like Flash Gordon And Buck Rogers, Westerns were often guided by exaggerated masculine archetypes. It progressively evolved into a grittier, more hostile genre where physicality, violence, and disrespectful treatment of women were the order of the day. Many other fictional westerns that left no trace of the story would certainly feature a lone hero rescuing a woman from danger, and the westerns that paid more attention to historical detail almost certainly showed the more violent side of it. It left modern filmmakers to re-approach the genre and tasked with reinventing the genre John Maclean did brilliantly with his A24 Western 2015 Slow West. A subversive, expertly stylized dark comedy thriller Slow West is both a fairy tale of sorts and a poignant commentary on masculinity and its relationship to the core principles of the genre.
Honestly, that’s remarkable Slow West is a directorial debut, as Maclean’s command of style and visual poetry is so clear that it feels like he’s mastered his craft over the course of a long career; Slow West was awarded the Sundance Institute’s World Cinema Jury Prize as a “Dramatic Winner”, but unfortunately Maclean has yet to develop a follow-up project. The film is an immigration story about young Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit McPhee), who travels from his homeland to the United States to save and save his great love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Unprepared for the perils of his journey, Jay finds an unlikely mentor in veteran bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). The unlikely pair go in search of Rose and her family while being pursued by eccentric crime lord Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a former ally of Silas who wants to claim the reward for capturing the Ross family. What follows is a bizarre combination of painterly imagery, absurd moments of humor, surprisingly shocking violence and a vocal commentary on male heroes.
“Slow West” has the unique style of A24
The film’s opening scenes, detailing Jay’s relationship with Rose, are almost parodic in their imagination; Jay is hopelessly in love with the young girl, but both she and her father, John (Rory McCann) fled to America with a bounty on their heads after a man died at their company. There’s a kind of discrepancy that separates Jay’s take on the situation from what actually happened. He clearly envisions himself as a great romantic hero whose aspirations are nobility, but the scenes between him and Rose herself are relatively brief. While she only claims to care for him like a lovable “little brother,” Jay has enough to make the voyage across the sea to rescue her. The comedy, of course, comes from Jay’s complete inability to offer legitimate help.
From the moment he begins his crusade of passion, Jay’s lack of practical knowledge becomes apparent. He gets lost in the woods, fails to secure a sustainable shelter, and is nearly killed by rival bounty hunters. After Silas saves him for his amusement, he decides to use the untrustworthy outlaw as his protector and guide. Silas, of course, is intrigued by the bounty the Ross family is facing (not that Jay would be smart enough to realize) and agrees to look after Jay on their journey together. What’s interesting is that Jay’s choices aren’t necessarily “toxic,” in fact they’re naive. Little does he realize that he is putting Rose’s family in even more danger by pursuing him, and he seems to take every rumor he hears as gospel. Smit-McPhee’s poor demeanor makes him seem even more childish and pathetic; It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, but seeing him make mistakes all the time is hilarious in itself.
Fassbender does a great job of showing Silas lightly taunting Jay throughout, as he claims the young man’s quest is absurd. Silas regards any notion of sincerity with contempt, using his nihilistic attitude as a defense. This may be enough to convince Jay that he’s a pro, but it’s obvious that his only intention is to tease him. He callously taunts Jay about his mission as he was not intimate with Rose, claiming that his interests in women are purely sexual and transactional in nature. If Jay is delusional about his mission from the start, then Silas is merely putting up the facade for someone he knows will believe anything he says. They both make mistakes when it comes to their male egos, which makes their misadventures even more exciting in the face of the dangers of the wild and Payne’s gang.
A surprise western shootout
Slow West makes his point with the chaotic final gunfight that closes the story. Instead of aiming for the epic noble duel The good, the bad, and the ugly, Slow WestThe final fight is more of a dark comedic frenzy featuring some of the west’s biggest jerks. Payne’s menacing demeanor completely dissipates when he is revealed to be a cowardly leader who puts his men in danger as they close in on Rose, and both Jay and Silas learn a piece of truth when they finally find the Ross family. Rose and John have settled into a beautiful country home that’s idealized to a comedic degree, but the seemingly perfect setting is torn apart when Jay, Silas and Payne burst in with his gang, bickering like kids with toys.
Payne’s angry speech is hilariously cut short when he’s quickly finished off, and Jay isn’t very effective in battle, having his hand critically injured by a Native American arrow early in the mission. In an ironic twist of fate, it’s not Payne or his men who deal a severe blow to Jay, but Rose herself. In the end, Rose is more helpful in the fight against the outlaw gang than her young suitor would have been at his strongest, but she sadly shoots him after not realizing that he was in love with her. After Jay dies knowing the relationship he thought he had was never real, it becomes the tough and tough Silas whose heart settles. Silas spent the entire film making fun of Jay for wanting a simple family life filled with pure love, but that’s what secretly drives him. He marries Rose, they raise children, and he experiences the joyful romance he mocked Jay for.
Slow West is a film that uncovers the fronts men use to gain respect or the reputation they desire. It’s an over-the-top RPG, but each of the main characters (Jay, Silas, and Payne) know what they can actually achieve in the end. It’s a hilariously wacky adventure that holds a lot of truth about the genre itself and how much of it fits within those facades laid out for spectacle.