There are two types of western: those that build up the myth of the Old West – Rio Bravo (1959), The Searchers (1956), Shane (1953) – and those that break it – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), Unforgiven (1992) and High Plains Drifter (1973). With John Maclean’s astonishing debut feature, the audience is furnished with both: Slow West (2015) is a work that at once romanticises the West through the eyes of one character, while simultaneously demystifying its violence and brutality through those of the other.
Central to this theme are Michael Fassbender channelling 70s-era Clint Eastwood as the world-weary Silas, and a doe-eyed Kodi Smit-McPhee, in a performance that surely confirms him as one of his generation’s best character actors, as the tragically naive Jay. In one sense, Silas and Jay represent different aspects to the same character, so much so that it is tempting to read their double act as portrayals of the same man caught at different points in time. To this end, the narrative is filtered through both of its protagonists’ eyes.
Firstly we have Silas’ narration – tellingly beginning with the line ‘Once upon a time’ – and secondly, through Jay’s boyish notions of romance, which are subtly evoked by Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Complementing the visuals is a score by Jed Kurzel – whose excellent work can also be heard in The Babadook (2014) and Macbeth (2015) – that is just this side of twee, punctuated by an undercurrent of darkness and menace. Indeed, the sound design is one of the film’s most effective and disarming qualities, with characters speaking in each other’s voices, silent gunshots, and thunderous rainstorms all contributing to the sense that this modern western is more akin to the fairy tale than authentic history. Supporting the two leads are Ben Mendelsohn, on menacing form as the scummy and dangerous gang leader Payne, and Caren Pistorius in a small but memorable role as the object of Jay’s affections, Rose Ross. If there is one weakness here it may be in the film’s final moments, in a coda that feels somewhat at odds with the conclusion’s darkly comic cruelty, and which features a slightly too neat-and- tidy call back to one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, even if it does reinforce the film’s fairy tale sensibilities. Slow West is by turns a beautiful, surprising and haunting work, made all the more astonishing that it is the director’s debut feature.