The Western, that forlorn, mystical genre that formed the girders of the American cinematic imagination, has been a boomin’ over the past decade. After a long quarter century no man’s land for the genre, something got in the air in the mid-’00s and the genre was popular again. We had the grisly tone poem The Proposition that found the historical and ideological connection between American and Australian history. We had the trio of stupendous 2007 efforts, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which interpreted the Western through the lens of the 1980s, the early 1900s, and the classic period, respectively. We had Tommy Lee Jones provide two deeply classical studies in anti-classicism in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Homesman, both infatuated with and critical of the violent “proper” masculinity of American society. The Western has become, as it always was in film, a prismatic, malleable creature prone to variations and styles and impulses that fitted it to the needs of the nation and the passions of the cast and film crew.
All of these aforementioned treats are films with ideas about the West, and all are films that in some way or another tether themselves to a seriousness and gravity about the West. Certainly, the debut of writer-director John Mclean (who previously spent his days as a keyboardist) doesn’t avoid gravity. The tall tale of Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee) hopping the Pond from Scotland to Colorado in search of his love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who fled when she was implicated in a murder along with her father, evokes themes of violence and masculinity. Especially when Jay meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a wanderer who leads him on the way to his departed lover, but who secretly pines for a bounty on her head that Jay is unaware of.
But Mclean’s tempo is not solemn. Not by a long shot. He has an eye for folklore and a West that can dress-up in autumnal, wintery, springlike, or summer-fried garb on the drop of a dime, and his quick-and-dirty screenplay (in and out, thankfully, in 84 minutes), floats from scene to scene to disorient the audience and hint at the confusion and disarray of wondering around the outskirts of the Old West, a region where time and place has lost meaning. On place, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is almost surreal, occasionally approximating a diluted El Topo (the 1970 film by the Argentinian madman Alejandro Jodorowsky). The colors are hyper-saturated so that the sky and the ever-green hills daunting over the foreground are more likely to resemble matte paintings than location photography, and Mclean seems entirely intent on us debating with this fact.
New Zealand plays the Old West here, and it is deformed to look more like the fantastical and arcane Middle-earth it played in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the music by Jed Kurzel is more carnivalesque than weary and haunted in the way of the great Westerns of old. Added to this bamboozlement are the deliberately pantomimed performances which seem to intentionally reject authenticity. All of which afford the film the function of a storybook than anything else. Surely, many Westerns have been dreamlike in their demeanor, but Slow West is a child’s dream. It occupies an unmined region halfway between the morbid qualities of the Coen Brothers and the playhouse diorama of any Wes Anderson film.
There’s a Technicolor quality to the piece, vivid and even curious and silly in the best moments, and the formless narrative – which makes trips and pit stops into whatever flavor or scent the winds carry it to – follows suit. It is a befuddling film, weird and perplexing and even deranged in some of its day-glo pixie dust charisma, but it is one of the few truly original Westerns to have come about in the past decade or so. Not the best, really, but I don’t think it wishes to be. It is following its own trippy wavelength, and it is a magnetic, compulsively groovy experience, warts and all.
By the way, that ending shootout? It feels like someone who never went to film school and just up and decided they boyishly wanted to make a movie for the hell of it. Oh yeah, that is exactly what happened, and the results are an extroverted, enthusiastic take on colorized silent cinema by a director who never learned what visual storytelling meant, but simply knew it existed, and took to reinterpreting the idea of shots and edits to fit his own liking. That is startling, enticing cinema, and it is one of the most sublime sequences of film from the decade thus far.
The fact that these visuals encircle a surprising criticism of Western men and their ability to save the women of the world? That is only the icing on the cake; our two main boys spend the entire film riding to save Rose, and in the end, they are largely incompetent, and Rose never needed any saving to begin with.