The heyday of the Western is over, but the genre has never completely gone away. Part of its continued reinvigoration is the adoption of very American iconography by non-American filmmakers – the Italian spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, Australia’s The Proposition and The Rover, Denmark’s The Salvation. Slow West, John Maclean’s debut, is an unmistakably British film, despite being set in the West and shot in New Zealand (Scotland plays herself). As with those other examples, fidelity to the geographical settings is never as important as what an outside voice can say with the genre. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has left Scotland for America to reunite with a lost love, but finds himself ill-equipped for survival, teaming up with Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who may or may not be trustworthy. The story is at first disjointed and episodic but what emerges is a more character- than plot-driven film, one that resonates beyond its short running time.
It’s not an easy film to read – there are moments of buddy comedy, black comedy, shocking violence, serious drama and peaceful scenery. At times it treats its characters with a Coen brothers-style meanness, but on the whole it’s sincere. The music is sometimes a little too jovial for what we’re seeing on screen, or maybe that’s the point. Fassbender isn’t playing to or against type – his accent is a little muddled (the character is Irish-Canadian), he doesn’t say much, and you get the sense that he’s a tough guy only because he can act like a tough guy. It’s his voice-over that drives the film, which is strange but ultimately fitting. The rest of the cast are unfamiliar faces so you never know who’s important, who’s good or who’s bad.
Every frame is visually rich, and Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan make interesting use of split-diopter shots (when the frame is split in half, the foreground in focus in one half and the middleground in focus in the other). It’s an unusual technique but one that adds to the film’s sense of surreality – the flashbacks to Scotland arrive unannounced, taking on the quality of dream sequences, and the low budget means the massacring of Native Americans takes place just off camera. It builds to a sense of there being two Wests – the idealised, romanticised one that Jay believes in and has read about, and the reality that Silas has experienced. It’s never completely clear which one we’re being shown, just as the characters can never resolve that conflict in themselves.