New To Blu: Slow West

Andrew reviews this year's western entry, Slow West. 

"Little does she know we're riding
her to the White Castle processing plant."
Literal and figurative, Slow West lives up to its promise of a slow burn across the rugged desert terrain while also providing a fresh, emotional and oddly brisk take on the western genre.  Epic in scope yet precise in focus on its characters, the 1870 period piece concerns a young man named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on a sojourn through Colorado in the American west in search of his long lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius).  Along the way he encounters an outlaw named Silas Selleck (producer and star Michael Fassbender) who becomes something of a father figure to the lad.  Their slow careen across the open plains and canyons soon entangle them with Silas’ former employer Payne (Ben Mendelsohn from Lost River) and the once quiet western gradually evolves into a tense noir of bloodletting, betrayal and broken hearts.

Modestly paced with subtle buildup tempered by a distinctly modern sensibility, Slow West evokes the vastness of Sergio Leone, the abrupt violence of Sam Peckinpah and an eccentric hint of the Coen brothers thrown in.  Watching the film I was reminded of the achingly beautiful panoramas and subtle drive of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both from a cinematographic and narrative standpoint.  

"Why do I always have to
play a creep?!"
While undoubtedly a period drama, Slow West isn’t always told like one and the precise framing of characters in medium close ups calls into question what a western by David Cronenberg might have looked like.  In terms of performances, Michael Fassbender is clearly the film’s anchor and morally complex drifter to rally behind.  Equally strong and always cast in the role of a slime bag is Ben Mendelsohn, who makes a worthy successor to Eric Roberts for how easily the man can project serpentine villainy. 

Slow West serves as both an ode to a subgenre of snail paced burns through the gravel and dust of the old west and purporting its own unique spin on the material.  As a debut for first time director John Maclean, it’s a handsome effort with lush vistas recalling John Ford’s The Searchers and at times the startling violence of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.  Yes it tells a conventional story which has been done to death but is told in an interesting and largely pretty fashion.  Some might be put off by the films leisurely pacing while others can’t help but soak in the atmosphere of the landscape and period.  Overall it’s a solid western with just enough defining characteristics and precise framing to set itself apart from the pack.  In an era where the western action film can so easily look and feel just like the last one, there’s something to be said for a first timer making an otherwise interchangeable subgenre new and engaging for the casual viewer.  As a fan of western noir anyway, Slow West is one of the better ones to come around in a while.

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-Andrew Kotwicki