Movie Review: Slow West (2015)
We don’t quite get Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee) when we first meet him. He’s a thin, doe-eyed boy searching for his Scottish love in the American West of 1870. At night, he stares up at the stars and names the constellations. He’s polite, speaks French, and says things like “I come in peace” when no one would doubt it. The question isn’t whether he’s peaceful, it’s how someone so innocent survived for so long. In voiceover, Silas Selleck calls him “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”
We don’t quite get Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) when we first meet him, either. He’s tough-looking, dirty, and clenches a cheroot in his teeth like the son of Clint Eastwood. He shows up at a crucial point to kill the man who’s about to kill Jay, and somehow he knows all about Jay’s mission and strikes a bargain. He’ll protect him during the journey: $50 now, $50 then. But how did he find Jay, and how does he know about the girl, and why does he care enough to do this?
Answers come by and by. Most answers anyway.
Sprinkle my salt on wounded gut
It turns out that Jay’s Scottish love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), along with her father, John (Rory McCann, who played “The Hound” in “Game of Thrones”) is wanted for murder. Dead or alive. Question: Is this for crimes in the states or for the crime they committed accidentally in Scotland—the death of Jay’s father, a Scottish lord? More, don’t they know they’re wanted for murder? And if they do know, why are they building a home? Wouldn’t you want to keep moving?
That’s the early big reveal anyway: Silas is after the reward money ($2,000), and he’s using Jay to get to Rose.
The bigger reveal is that Rose doesn’t love Jay. He’s just a hopeless romantic, with the emphasis on hopeless. Writer-director John Maclean (of The Beta Band) is rather cruel to him in this regard.
Example: After various adventures, mostly attempts to shake Silas’ old gang, led by the fur-coat-wearing and silently menacing Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), Jay and Silas come upon the Ross homestead: a picturesque cabin surrounded by a field of corn. But the place soon becomes a shooting gallery as Silas, Payne and his gang, and yet another bounty hunter, all converge at the same time to try to claim the reward. Still thinking himself the hero, Jay rushes into the cabin to rescue Rose. Instead, not realizing who he is, she shoots him in the gut.
More: As he lays there, bleeding to death, he can only watch as the woman he loves, still unaware of his presence, kisses her lover, a tall, strong Native American warrior. The house shakes from the gunfire, causing the salt on the shelf above him to fall and spill over his wounds. I burst out laughing when it happened. At the same time I wondered: Is it overkill? Of course it is. It's cruel and unusual. But having been a hopeless romantic in my youth, I don’t have much tolerance for the species.
Besides, Maclean allows Jay a moment of grace. He does it with all of his victims, now that I think about it. He doesn't forget them. He allows them one last moment.
A long time ago
“Slow West” got a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, and it’s mostly well-made. Fassbender is particularly good. His performance reveals what’s missing with all of those Clint Eastwood westerns. Silas actually has mixed feelings about Jay. He takes delight in him at times. He takes delight. Eastwood’s characters never do—or not in a way that seems delightful. I miss that when it's not there. I love it when it's on screen. (See: Morgan Freeman watching Rita Hayworth in “Shawshank.”)
At the same time, “Slow West” is so jokey, or inside-jokey, it’s meta—from the salt in the wound to the anthropologist studying disappearing Indian cultures who disappears with most of Jay’s stuff. “In a short time,” he says, “this will be a long time ago.” He's telling this to Jay but it's Maclean winking toward us.
The most jokey element, certainly the most incongruous, is Jay himself. In my review of “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” I wrote that the central joke is how the main character (Seth MacFarlane’s Albert) is really a 21st-century man stuck in the 19th century West. Here, too. Jay is too soft to exist when and where he is. He just isn't in on the joke.