Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Slow West (2015)

Directed by: John Maclean
Runtime: 1hr 24mins
Google Play, Amazon Instant
2.5/5*

"Violence and suffering. Dreams and toil." That's how John Maclean describes the world of his feature directorial debut Slow West. It's an apt description, for a film filled with suffering, and dreamy flashbacks that slowly reveal the doomed relationship at the heart of this film. Yet, Maclean manages to keep the way things progress unexpected.

I've heard it described as True Grit as directed by Wes Anderson (I wouldn't mind seeing that movie). Yet there's little of Anderson's overtly quirky style, and humor to be found. That isn't to say there is no humor, in fact there's a surprising amount for a film so filled, otherwise, with the darker side of the wild west, where everyone greets each other with weapons drawn. Maclean, a Scottish musician and filmmaker, approached the film with a clear love of classic westerns, however, this film comes close, without quite making itself worthy of being in the same conversation.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled from Scotland to America to journey through stunning vistas, and beautiful color palates in search of his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius). She and her father, after an incident, fled to America's wild west to lay low. Meanwhile, while on the road, Jay runs into Silas (Michael Fassbender), an outlaw looking for money. Jay, an easy target, offers to pay him for his protection, after Silas makes it clear he needs it.

Colorful flashbacks show us Jay's relationship to Rose. It's an odd relationship, with her continually pretending to kill him with different imaginary weapons, and generally avoiding intimacy. It isn't quite the clear picture we need, to justify all the trouble Jay is intent to go through for her.

Silas reveals that Rose and her father are wanted. A $2000 reward is out for them dead or alive, which as Silas puts it, might as well be dead or dead. Jay, however, is unaware, and inadvertently leading Silas to her. Shortly after hearing this, Silas and Jay stop by a shop in the middle of nowhere, when a Swedish couple stops in to rob them and the shopkeeper. In a scene that attempts, but fails to reach a Tarantino-esque building of tension, the couple is gunned down. Upon leaving the shop, Silas and Jay are stunned to find two children waiting for their parents. It's a stark reminder of the unforeseen consequences of shooting first, and asking questions later. These children haunt them throughout the rest of the film, being taken in by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his gang, who have been tracking them for unknown reasons. These orphaned children are a reminder of the persistent theme of innocent people paying for the crimes of others.

Yet sadly, this brings me to the fact that there's a startling lack of detail to the film. Payne and his gang are an underdeveloped set of side characters. There is no understanding of how they know Jay, or why they would bother following Silas. In a later scene, Silas rubs something on Jay's face to keep the sun from cooking his skin, yet all this does is call attention to the fact that he's been traveling the entire film without a hat (an essential article of clothing at the time). When Jay leaves Silas, out of distrust, he finds Werner, a seemingly kind German fellow with a wagon, who allows him to camp with him for the night. However, in the morning Jay wakes to find Werner had made off with his horse and his belongings, the sound of which, should have woken Jay. Yet later, Silas, our supposedly clever outlaw, ignores the sound of a marksman's gunfire to stand out in the open. Also, after a while we begin to wonder how Jay seems to innately know Rose's whereabouts in the first place. These little nitpicky details stack up after a while, further weighing down a film with barely enough depth to stand up as it is.

The film also fails to establish itself as the traveling buddy western it probably should have been. If Silas ever bothered to question his original intent in favor of loyalty to Jay, there's little reason shown for him doing so. Their relationship's setup involves the archetypal hardened outlaw taking in a green young one, annoyed by his incompetence, but skips the essential building of that friendship in favor of jumping to the final act where they've already become trusted friends. As a result Silas' intentions and motivations rarely feel clear. It's a missed opportunity for an actor with the skills and range of Fassbender.

As for the title, the only thing it informs within this film is how slow Jay is in catching on, yet that leads to a comic bit of irony later in the film when he literally has salt spilled on a wound. These humorous bits, at times, feel at odds with a script attempting to build tension to an explosive climax, yet without them the film might feel completely devoid of personality. While Fassbender, Mendelsohn, and Smit-McPhee all turn in fine performances, there sadly isn't much required of them.

Maclean making his feature directorial debut, had previously directed Fassbender in a short film called Man on a Motorcycle (2009), that was shot entirely on a mobile phone. Having an actor with the prestige of Fassbender as a friend is always a good thing, he served as a producer on this film. To his credit, Maclean does show potential for unique vision, let's just hope any future collaboration between the two doesn't feel as under cooked as Slow West.