A Fresh Look at the Lawless West

A Fresh Look at the Lawless West

By Michael Nordine

Slow West
SourceSlow West


Movies about the West are at their best when they’re as melancholic as they are violent. 

By Michael Nordine

When it screened at the Sun Valley Film Festival this March, writer-director John Maclean’s Slow West looked and felt perfectly at home in Idaho. Filmed in New Zealand but set on the frontier of 19th-century America, the slow-burning film is a revisionist Western of arresting beauty and harsh violence.

Slow West stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a lovestruck 16-year-old who travels from his native Scotland to the lawless American West in search of the girl he loves. Flashbacks make it plain to everyone but Jay himself that his feelings for Rose are unreciprocated. Unbeknownst to our young Romeo, Rose and her father are wanted dead or alive to the tune of $2,000 — a princely sum in those days. We don’t know the circumstances of this father-daughter crime, but we do know that this is why Michael Fassbender’s nefarious Silas has agreed to escort Jay: The poor kid is leading his trigger-happy chaperone right to the biggest payday of his life.

Workaday bounty hunters, outmatched opportunists and German orphans descend upon the hideout …

Like many before him, Maclean romanticizes his setting even as he deconstructs the very notion of it. This is a no man’s land full of snakes doing everything in their power to strike first. Maclean offsets the familiarity of both his setting and his themes with a number of deeply strange scenarios, including a vaguely mythical forest few dare enter. 

Silas and Jay’s trek may be slow-going, but the film itself moves along at the comfortable pace of a rider on horseback eager to arrive at his destination without missing the sights on the way. When they finally do arrive at Rose and her father’s quiet homestead, any chance of peaceful resolution immediately dissolves.

One and all come out of the woodwork for this stunning final sequence, with workaday bounty hunters, outmatched opportunists and German orphans alike descending upon the hideout like locusts. As they pick each other off, a throwaway line from earlier starts resonating: “In a short time, this will be a long time ago.” It’s the most elegiac summation of the frontier era this side of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Maclean matches those mournful words with a series of static compositions highlighting every single character to meet his or her maker. Many die in Slow West, but at least some of them made for beautiful corpses.

Slow West is available on DirecTV. It’s out in theaters on May 15, and available on iTunes the same day.