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At the end of the nineteenth century, 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) journeys across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves. He is joined by Silas (Michael Fassbender), a mysterious traveler, and hotly pursued by an outlaw along the way.
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After having read the reviews, I braced myself for falling asleep in the middle of the movie, as it was late, I was tired, and I knew I wasn't going to make it through a "slow" movie. I didn't nod off once.
Its beautifully shot and acted, with a western pre-packaged plot turned on its head, a horrifically dry sense of humor, and a touch of magical realism (enough that they can get away with crazy plot holes, you just take it for granted that this world works just a little differently). Frankly, I'm convinced that those who perceive this as slow only observe dialogue and fight scenes in a movie. Yes, there are long scenes with long periods of quiet, but in order to keep this western sparse enough with words that you actually believe the narrator is the sort of fellow they claim, they do a lot of their storytelling silently. When you see the two characters riding, look at their horses: the outlaw rides his horse with it's head held relaxed, the kid's horse has his head straight up in the air, and gradually lowers it throughout the film, showing how up-tight the kid is in comparison. After one particularly disturbing gunfight, the outlaw whistles as he rides his horse, and the kid glares at him, then the camera pans around and shows the outlaw clenching his fist and rubbing it on his trousers - obviously feeling unclean. There's also some great visual puns/metaphors throughout, two in particular involving salt and horseshoes.
Watching it with an eye for these unspoken details, I became deeply invested in the story and characters, to the point that the ending (both tragic and hopeful) made for a painful emotional rollercoaster.
Yes, there are the traditional villains, good and bad face-offs, and the reluctant hero (Fassbender), but different from most westerns with traditional props of campfires and trading posts, this story gives us a gritty perspective into these oft glanced over props, making me feel that it is not the bad guys that are simply brutal, but it is "the west" in general.
This is not your regular western. Maclean (writer/director) gives us the hero's back-story (Smit-McPhee) in snippets, which in some cases has a surreal quality. Blending a person's past with the present is hardly a new technique in film, but the way it is done in Slow West feels fresh, unexpected and a tad bit intelligent. I hate to say the word archetypes, but the Slow West leaves an imprint that resonates as do other movies that speak to us at a deeper level and haunt us long after the film is over. I look forward to seeing what Maclean does next.
"Slow West" has a lot of quirky elements and toys with one's expectations at every turn, but is more successful and focused than something like Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man", of which this film occasionally reminded me. Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit McPhee play wonderfully off of one another and give great, naturalistic performances. There are a lot of strange moments and conversations, but director John Maclean establishes a distinctive tone early on and never veers from it. Even the oddest moments of the film feel natural to the aura he's established. I enjoyed virtually every moment of this movie and am eager to revisit it, because I feel that there are layers to it that further viewings will disclose, though it also seems very simple and straightforward. It doesn't feel as though a moment of screen time is wasted here. The relationships in the film are drawn simply but elegantly. The shot compositions are absolutely gorgeous (if nothing else, one can bask in the scenery on display and have a rewarding viewing experience) and though it's quirky it's never overbearingly so, nor does it ever call undue attention to itself. It's short, deliberately-paced, breathtakingly film, simply rendered and inventive.
These may seem like modest charms, but they set "Slow West" apart from most modern films and distinguish it as a breath of fresh air. It's a true gem.