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Slow West: Quick-Paced Western Action

2015/Western
Written/Directed by: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn

The setup is clean and direct; a lone man travels the Western front of America in search for a lost love, equipped with his horse, gun and wits. This time, it’s a teenager whose naivety and innocence are at battle with the grit and savageness of the terrain and people. Jay Cavendish (played by the appropriately baby-faced Smit-McPhee) encounters the harsh reality of his venture when faced with a group of men who want nothing more than money and blood. He is saved by the mysterious lone ranger Silas, who agrees to help Jay reach his lost love amongst a band of bounty hunters who are searching for the very same girl, who is wanted along with her Father for a murder charge in Scotland that Jay feels responsible for.slow-west-4

Maclean’s first feature embraces the classic Western landscapes, outlaws and shootouts with such a force that reminds us how fun and interesting classic storytelling and male comradery really is. Its greatest strength lies with the relationship between the two leads, and how their Motifs begin different but ultimately become one. Silas (played by Fassbender) is the archetypal outlaw drifter whose confident macho persona and knowledge of the land harks back to every “good” guy cowboy whose independence becomes their strength. When he takes Jay under his wing, this is challenged and provides a partnership that drives the film with their shared goals, and striking differences.

Along the way, Jay and Silas are on pursuit by bounty hunter Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his crew. Their goal is clear and focused: follow the two towards the bounty and kill for the money. Payne’s character is both sinister and charming with Mendelsohn’s cold stare and nihilistic attitude towards his old friend Silas and how he is without emotion to use whatever he can to collect a reward.

Like all great Westerns, the film’s setpieces build much suspense for the unpredictability nature of violence and intentions with the characters. During a general store hold-up where the two leads are thrown between, the familiar standoffs become catalysts for their character discovery, especially with Jay. It tests the young man to make moral decisions that are appropriate to his main goal. Killing a young woman to get away alive is both jarring for Jay, but feels crucial for the situation. It tests his position within the violent reality of his trek in the West and the film throws a very surprising conclusion to the violence that tests his morality as well as the audience’s. Silas, on the other hand, knows his position and guides Jay in his reluctant decision to involve himself with such a harsh environment.   The violence is visceral and striking, but necessary.

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Slow West doesn’t take itself entirely serious with its implications of violence. The climax becomes an all-out brawl for survival with whipping pace and realistic outcomes that really keep our attention. This attention is earned because we care about the characters and the multiple outcomes that keep us constantly guessing. Even with such a familiar film, the conclusion still stirs imagination.

Within these sequences lies surprisingly tender moments that are not melodramatic, but ironically comedic and fitting to the economic pace and eccentric atmosphere. There are both dark and light moments that generate are more effective than overly drawn out scenes of backstory and continuous travel. At only 1 hour and 23 minutes, it feels like a complete dive into the Wild West with no questions and details left unanswered. Even for those who dislike Westerns, it definitely proves intriguing and appealing enough for engaging characters, and for audiences not familiar with the genre, it will prove there is much to offer.

Slow West is in Theatres now, and is also available On-Demand.

By Alex Gougeon. Alex is a Toronto-Based freelance Writer, Musician and Videographer who loves everything Film and Music.