So, Westerns seem to be coming back a bit, eh? Well… the Western setting. Westerns, I think, as they existed in the 30s-60s, will never truly return. I quite like Westerns, but I don’t particularly miss them. The selection we got from those decades are enough for me. The tone and spirit has changed too much now for anyone to ever make a movie like those again, and I accept that. But hey, at least directors I strongly dislike, such as Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro Iñárritu, have chosen the Western setting for their latest. Right? The last few years have certainly exhibited a gradual increase in the setting’s popularity. Perhaps, in this age of high connectivity, people are once again beginning to lament the wild frontier. Or maybe they just like the hats. Either way.
Slow West (2015)
Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young Scot new to the wild American frontier, embarks upon a quest to find his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who was forced to flee Scotland after a tragic accident for which Jay feels responsible. Realizing that the West is a dangerous place for the inexperienced to travel alone, Jay accepts the help of the rugged drifter Silas (Michael Fassbender). Unbeknownst to Jay, Silas is really a bounty hunter, and Rose has a $2,000 reward on her head for murder. Racing against time, the elements, random encounters, and a murderous gang of thugs led by the aptly-named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), Jay and Silas must help each other out to achieve conflicting goals, but the question remains, when the time comes, what will Silas do?
That sounds like the plot to a cowboy movie. It has a bad guy, a romantic subplot, potential for a shoot-out, and the requisite moral conundrums. If you pitched that to a studio sixty years ago, you may have even seen John Wayne in the Fassbender role. Silas is a tough guy, a drifter who works alone, tethered to a waning era of lawlessness, a man who lives by no law except his own sense of right and wrong. Again, that’s a pretty quintessential cowboy. Slow West employs these familiarities self-consciously, drawing upon established genre norms to establish a solid base from which to operate. I can’t fault it for doing that. In fact, that’s really what you’d want a movie like this to do: acknowledge the standards set by the now-unpopular genre, and then proceed to do something new with it. Otherwise, it’d just repeat plot elements and characters we know from much better films. You want to pay your respects to the stuff that inspired you, but you don’t want to invite comparison.
Unfortunately, with Classic Cowboy Movie as a jumping-off point, writer/director John Maclean’s innovation for the film, his “new place” to take the Western is, tragically, Quirky Indie Drama. Now, I have written on the pros and cons of indie movies before. I shall repeat myself here only in brief: since they allow the filmmaker unbridled creativity without studio interference, they can be wonderful things; for the same reason, however, they can be terrible things. In many ways, indie movies expose the artistic capabilities of their makers better than any other type of film. John Maclean’s done a few things here and there to varied success. He even won a BAFTA for Best Short Film—which is far more than I’ll ever do—but if we are to take Slow West as an indication of his greatest creative potential, I’m afraid he’s doomed us to the realm of thoroughly underwhelmed.
Since it’s a travel movie, it adheres dogmatically to that Odyssey structure. There is an ending in sight, but before our heroes can reach it they have to meander all over the place, having one unrelated episodic encounter after the next. But guys. What worked for Homer will not necessarily work for you. Through these random encounters, Slow West attempts to have some commentary on frontier life; with vignettes regarding poverty, violence, race, and the ongoing Indian Wars, but they have little to nothing to do with the plot, and rarely have any effect on Jay whatsoever. Instead they come across as unnecessary historical commentary, and since none of them are developed in a meaningful way, it feels as if we have Maclean constantly saying, “Wasn’t this horrible? Aren’t things better now?” Irritating, and not really the point of the movie. He even has the gall to include a wise old German scholar named Werner (Andrew Robertt), who lectures on the tragedy of Westward Expansion and the disappearance of indigenous cultures. Regardless of what you think about that message, whether you agree with it or not, it is never appropriate to reference Herzog thus.
Inevitably, I must turn my attentions towards Michael Fassbender. A few things in Slow West saved it from the all-too damning label “time-waster.” Well, actually just two things did. One was the soundtrack by Jed Kurzel. Between this and Macbeth, he’s had a very good, very Fassbender-y year. So, cheers to him. Second, unsurprisingly, was Fassbender himself. I’ve certainly made no secret of my unflappable love for this man. If you’ve read… any of my articles from the last few months, I’m sure you know this about me, so I’ll try not to extol him too much, for fear of redundancy. I’ll just say this, as a final comment on him and on Slow West: he acted as if he was in a better movie.