Film Review: Slow West
Slow West is not your typical western. It also comes off as a love story that’s more than meets the eye.
Jay Cavendish is a sixteen year-old Scottish boy in the frontiers of America. He recently arrived over there in pursuit of Rose Ross, his love from back home who also fled to America along with her father. The frontiers are deadly but Jay is determined to find her. Jay finds himself prey by strangers who were first trying to kill a Native American but is stopped by a bounty hunter named Silas Selleck.
Jay tells Silas his story of his pursuit and even pays him for protection. Silas cooperates at first but when he sees the wanted poster for Rose and her father, he decides to use it for his own pursuit for the bounty of $2,000 and use Jay to get it. During the time, Silas tells Jay about the importance of keeping his guard and why killing is necessary out there. It then becomes evident when a Swedish couple try to rob a store Jay and Silas are shopping at. The man and the owner are shot while Jay is up against the woman. He shoots her, his first murder. That wasn’t all. The couple had their children with them to which Jay and Silas give them food and clothes before leaving them behind.
In the flashback to before Jay and Rose came to America, we learn Jay was a boy of noble birth in Scotland and had a huge love for common girl Rose but deep down Rose thought of him more to be like a ‘little brother.’ One day an intense argument between Rose’s father and Jay’s uncle, the Lord Cavendish, led to the uncle being killed. That’s what led Rose and her father to flee to America with the bounty on their heads.
In a conversation, Jay finds Silas a brute because he doesn’t appear to care about love and seems to only care about ‘surviving.’ Jay leaves one night with his horse and goods but meets up with a writer named Werner who appears to befriend him only to rob him overnight. Silas is able to find Jay and the two return only to be confronted by the gang Silas used to belong to and its leader Payne who plans to beat Silas to catching Rose and her father. Payne even steals their weapons overnight. Unbeknown to Jay and Silas is that Payne and the gang have the orphaned children of the Swedish couple from the robbery.
SPOILER WARNING: The ending will be revealed in the below paragraph.
The two continue on unarmed until they enter a forest. They find themselves prey among a Native American tribe but are saved by the luck of them falling off horses. In the meantime, Payne and the gang pursue Rose and her father who are living in a desolate farm house protected. However the father is shot to death and Silas wants to pursue Payne and his gang alone tying Jay to a tree for his protection. Jay is able to free himself but finds himself in the battle where he is shot by Rose who doesn’t recognize him at first. After a gritty gun battle Silas kills Payne’s gang while a dying Jay is able to kill Payne while comforted by Rose. Silas is shocked to find Jay dead but later on becomes Rose’s love and adopts the orphaned Swedish children.
When you see the whole film, you could easily see it`s not your typical western. Yes, there is gunshooting going on. However the film focuses on motives of the shooting. It focuses on the people and why they`re committing these murders. It can be either for personal greed or vengeance or simply to help themselves and their loved ones survive. Another interesting thing the film focuses on is the wide variety of characters involved in this Wild West scenario. There were your typical villains but there were others like the immigrant couple robbing a store to feed themselves and their starving children. This was a reminder that even the first immigrants the US in the 1800`s had to fight to survive in the New World.
Mind you the shooting in the film isn’t meant to stir up the excitement you’d normally acquire while watching a Western. Instead it focuses on the gun battle’s intensity and gets the audience feel the heat of the friction instead of being dazzled away by the gunslinging. In each case, you’re left with an aftermath that’s ugly. Seeing the bodies on the ground is more disheartening to the viewer instead of satisfaction that the job is done. I guess that’s why the film is called Slow West, because the ruthlessness and friction of the Wild West here is slowed down and the intensity is felt instead of just seen.
The film also focuses on the theme of love during a time and place where it appears people have no heart of soul. Jay is so determined to get back to his love Rose even though her and her father have a bounty on them. It took Jay to convince a bounty hunter who was only interested in using Jay as bait for Rose and her father about what love is. Over time they see the fight to survive and the lack of scruples in the people that surround them during their trip. However it`s Jay that convinced Silas of the power of love even if Jay appeared to be too naïve and deluded for his own good. It`s a common theme in a lot of films that show love in what appears to be a moral wasteland. I’ve seen it before in City Of God where love and hope exist in one of the most brutal favelas of Brazil. Here in Slow West we see love in the lawlessness of the Wild West. Even if Jay`s heart `beat in the wrong places,` he changed the older bounty hunter Silas and his heart. You know it when he says at the end: “There’s more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life.”
This is actually the first feature-length film directed and written British director John Maclean. He does a very impressive job by packing a lot of intensity into an 85-minute story. For those who don’t know, John is actually a former guitarist for the Beat Band and The Aliens before turning to film directing. Michael Fassbender does a great job of character acting in his supporting role and Kodi Smit-McPhee is also excellent as the young Jay in capturing both his acquiring of the necessary ruthless grit over time while still keeping his passion and innocence. Impressive supporting performances come from Ben Mendelsohn as Payne and Caren Pistorius as Rose. Even minor performances like the Swedish couple committing the robbery and the Congolese singers add to the story.
The film has already won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic category and has above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes but the film has not been successful in winning a crowd. Not even $250,000. It`s not fair to say Sundance winners are declining at the box office, even though such films have shown a lack of buzz compared to 20 years ago or even 15 years ago. However this film was overshadowed by the Sundance hit comedy Me And Earl And The Dying Girl which ad no star power at all. It`s always hard to predict what will win with the crowds. Right now there’s no data on how much online viewing of the film has happened.
Slow West doesn’t have the fast-pace action one would expect from a Western. Instead its slowness and intensity are its best qualities which allows the audient to feel the grit of the situation and the feelings of its main characters. Qualities that make the story.