It's the 1870s and a teenage Scottish boy, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is traveling across the American west on a mission. He's searching and on the trail of the girl he loves, a girl a few years older than Jay named Rose (Caren Pistorious), who had to flee Scotland and is now on the run with her father. To say the least, Jay is inexperienced in surviving in the wilderness, and he has no real idea of where he's going, only that he'll keep on looking for Rose -- the love of his life -- for as long as it takes. It is on the trail though he meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an experienced bounty hunter who offers to be Jay's guide...for a price. Suspicious but desperate, Jay agrees so both he and Silas ride west, following what little evidence the Scottish teenager has. The trail behind him has been rough enough, but he has little idea of what awaits.
Though it pains me to say it, I can admit the truth. It's something I've known for years, but man, it does suck. The western genre has gone the way of the dodo bird. The big, extravagant, epic westerns of the 1950's and 1960's are long gone, as are the bigger than life stars like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott and so many others. What are we left with? The occasional western that gets a big theatrical release, but more likely, a smaller, indie western like this 2015 effort from director John McLean. Small scale, almost minimalist at times, and most definitely in revisionist mode, it's an interesting movie but not one I necessarily enjoyed unfortunately.
The late 1960's started the trend, and the 1970's kicked the door in with the concept of revisionist westerns. These were movies that tried to look at the American wild west with a more honest, brutal, graphic and dirty vision. There were some great westerns released, but often times, the finished product was so bleak, no one wanted to see any more westerns. 'Slow' is in the revisionist vein 100 percent. The portrayal of the wild west in the 1870's is violent, startling, survival-based and any one who gets in your way....you've a right to kill them. Bbbbbut, my goodness it is bleak to the point it is hard to just sit and appreciate the movie that definitely had a ton of potential. It clocks in at just 85 minutes and is painfully drawn out at times (taking its title incredibly seriously) with very little actually happening. That becomes a bit of an issue.
The positive is obvious. His name is Michael Fassbender. Maybe you've heard of him. One of the most talented actors working currently in film, Fassbender's Silas is a presence that's both comforting and intimidating at the same time. He's looking out for Jay (for a price), but with something else in mind too. Fascinating to watch an extremely talented actor do his thing, and his scenes with Smit-McPhee are excellent as they find a rhythm, almost an unlikely friendship but not quite. The 85-minute running time comes into play there. I never really felt like I knew much about either character. Therefore when things get sticky and the bullets start flying, I didn't have much in the way of an emotional investment. Interesting performances, but I would have liked some more depth to the script.
The only other recognizable face -- who's quickly becoming one of my favorites -- is Ben Mendelsohn as Payne, an outlaw and leader of a gang who has some history with Silas. The physical appearance here is amazingly perfect for Mendelsohn, a wide-brimmed hat and an IMMENSE coat made of buffalo to the point you can barely make out his face. Now that said...he's in about three scenes and is criminally underused to the point it feels like a waste. His presence alone, his cold glare often says more than any line of dialogue could. Along with Pistorious as Rose, also look for Edwin Wright, Andrew Robertt and Rory McCann in small but important supporting parts.
Something is missing though. The on-location shooting in New Zealand is stunningly good-looking. One shot after another could be freeze-framed and hung on a wall like a painting. The mostly low-key musical score isn't too folksy and one main theme resonates throughout the story. Even the message in general of a brutal, bullet-riddled American west is strong....but it doesn't make the movie good as much as it pains me to say it. The ending packs quite a wallop, or should have, but I had checked out already. A disappointing misfire unfortunately, a western with a ton of potential that spends too much time on style and its revisionist roots over characters and developing characters.
Very disappointing unfortunately.
Slow West (2015): **/****