Sundance 2015 Review: ‘Slow West’ Does Justice

Every time a new western comes out it seems to be another new deconstruction of the genre. That makes sense. When westerns were in their prime, it was almost still the wild west, or at least that era had just ended in real history. Then it became a Hollywood mainstay so future films developed it. Then as the genre waned, the westerns that did make it had to comment on them. We’re well past a post-modern period of westerns and Slow West is awesome. 

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) rides with Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) to rescue his girlfriend Rose (Caren Pistorius), with assorted bounty hunters on their tail for the reward offered on Jay. In Slow West, this classic western myth is presented as more of a fairy tale, with absurd and surreal encounters dominating Jay and Silas’s journey. I could go through each one, one by one, because each sequence is a unique contribution to western excitement.

Writer/director John Maclean creates a unique portrait of life in the frontier, where there are no rules but there is a code. Most people respect it just to avoid dying. Silas is practical in the face of amateur violence. The violence tends to be single gunshots, but you understand why each gunshot is fired, or arrow launched, so it has just as much impact as a cascade of rounds and squibs. Then they’ll break your heart.

It seems like there are endless reasons for shooting people, including mistakes or misunderstanding. That makes each death special, as it were, not just a series of bodies falling to the ground. It also reinforces the stakes against Jay. If people can die so easily by accident, imagine how hard it will be when people are TRYING to kill you.

Jay and Silas pass by ominous visuals that tell an entire story in a single shot. Maclean seams to have a visual sense of humor too. He does the classic low angle shot from an angle so low we’ve certainly never seen it before. In the climax, there is a literal re-enactment of a common idiom that made me laugh out loud, and on top of that it’s got the extra level of a metaphor.


Check Out: CraveOnline’s Interview with Ben Bendelsohn on Slow West

They come up with clever solutions to mundane problems like soaked clothes. Some mini-Rube Goldberg chain reactions save them from Indians. There’s even a surreal western dream sequence.

Maclean crafts very deliberate staging so that small details can drive the frame. His use of windows, open fields, and the very posture of the actors shows that he has a keen eye for film. I will definitely want to see what he does next.

I loved Slow West and thought it was awesome but was having trouble developing my thoughts after the screening. That’s probably a good thing. I mean, it’s okay if a movie connects with me so strongly I know exactly how to describe it, but it’s also a welcome challenge if a movie hits me so hard I really have to figure out what was hitting me. I hope I did Slow West justice.

 Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.