Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence and brief Language
Directed by: John Maclean
Written by: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius & Rory McCann
The western is a cinematic genre that has died a sad death. There were decades when John Wayne and Clint Eastwood owned theater screens. However, the western has gone the way of the musical in being the kind of film that’s occasionally brought back for a short spurts from certain filmmakers who want to do something out of the ordinary, but mainly resides in past decades. SLOW WEST is a western that was clearly was made on a budget by someone who really wanted to tell a much bigger story. That comes across in its short running time and uneven pacing. You get the sense that New Zealander John Maclean wanted to write and direct a longer film, but didn’t have the funds to do so. The end result is an oddball western that’s worth a watch if you’re bored, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch it.
Jay Cavendish is a young Scottish lad who’s made his way to America in search of his lost love, Rose Ross. Through a passing encounter, Jay has his life saved by tough-as-nails bounty hunter Silas Selleck. The two join forces and make their way across the deadly landscape of the wild west. While Silas mentors Jay on survival, Jay tries to mentor Silas on what it means to live. Their journey becomes more difficult when they run across a violent band of rival bounty hunters who intend to collect a reward on Rose’s head with extreme prejudice.
SLOW WEST has good ideas in its script. Through their journey Jay and Silas bond in an unusual way that seems slightly clichéd, but is fun to watch nonetheless. They encounter various threats from desperate robbers to arrow-shooting Indians to a few dishonest travelers. However, all of these encounters only seem to last for two minutes each. That’s partially because of the ridiculously short running time (just over 80 minutes) and a script that seems like the condensed version of a much bigger story. This all being said, John Maclean demonstrates a knack for weaving drama with a quirky sense of humor. The way in which some of the more violent points of the film are handled make for a refreshing balance of darkness and a somewhat light-hearted spirit. The violence is never the punchline and it never reaches graphically excessive levels. The main problems with this movie come from its short length. It simply doesn’t leave much of an impact as a result.
As far as performances are concerned, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as the main character. He’s a naïve teenager who’s traveling some very dangerous areas. You also get the sense that this Scottish teen is a hopeless romantic. While Kodi Smit-McPhee started off strong in THE ROAD, he hasn’t really received any meaty roles since that film (with the possible exception of lending his voice to PARANORMAN). He was a bit of a throwaway kid character in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and couldn’t do much to save the last year’s woefully misguided YOUNG ONES. Jay Cavendish is a refreshingly fleshed-out character who carries a sense of innocence along with an annoying streak of being too gullible for his own good. It could be argued that the latter is a direct quality of the character that drives the plot forward, but it does get a little silly at points.
However, McPhee is not the main draw here. That comes in Michael Fassbender’s Silas. Playing the character as a bit of a John Wayne type with a sarcastic sense of humor and a bad attitude that occasionally rears up, Fassbender is the best thing in SLOW WEST. He’s a bad-ass from the first frame we see him and has the most believable story arc in the whole damn film (as clichéd as the finale might wind up being). Acting opposite Fassbender is Ben Mendelsohn (who’s usually playing creepy bad guys in films like BLACK SEA, ANIMAL KINGDOM and KILLING THEM SOFTLY) as a fur-wearing bounty hunter with a dark streak. Mendelsohn is having a blast as the character, but feels underused as we only get about three memorable scenes with him. That’s no fault of his own, but rather a script that simply doesn’t paint him as the villain that he probably should have been.
SLOW WEST feels like the short skeleton version of a longer, far better film. Characters enter and exit as mere set pieces. Kodi Smit-McPhee is given a meatier role than he’s received recently as the main character and Fassbender is definitely the best part of the film. While John Maclean seems like a good director, he needed to better flesh out his script in order to make this unconventional western feel more complete. SLOW WEST isn’t bad. It suffers from a short running time and uneven pacing, but this is still a decent western…albeit a not fully satisfying one.