Slow West Is An Efficient And Gorgeous Entry Into The Western Genre Canon.

Slow West.
Director: John Maclean.
Writer: John Maclean.
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn.
Opens: The Texas Theatre.

In a world where satellites can map out the entire planet, there remain very few frontiers that humans haven't explored. And yet there's still something so appealing and so thrilling about heading off into the big unknown.

That insatiable thirst for exploration is what makes Westerns such an enduring movie genre. Whether they're ripping off samurai movies (The Magnificent Seven) or simply using the frontier setting as a backdrop for exploring a man's dark soul (There Will Be Blood), such films continue to enthrall audiences despite the fact that the West has long since been won.

Slow West is but the latest film to use the backdrop of America's old unexplored and hostile lands as a way to study the juxtaposition of two wildly different men and the way that they see the world. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish and the dreamy Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck, the film follows the pair as they make their way out through the American West in search of the love of Jay's life, Rose.

As a pair, Silas and Jay have created a version of the classic odd couple pairing that's a delight to see on the screen. Whereas Jay is a hopeless romantic who actually sees the magic of the world, Silas is a live-in-the-moment, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.

But while both actors are doing fine work here, neither of them are really stretching their acting chops much. Smit-McPhee has played roles similar to this one before and Fassbender is very effortlessly playing Silas. That's not to diminish their work here, however. The strength of Slow West still comes from their onscreen chemistry as the two bicker and banter while slowly making their way through the dangerous frontier.

While it's a very well-written and acted, where Slow West really earns its chops is in its stellar cinematography from Robbie Ryan. One of the most beautiful movies we've seen in recent memory, the film, though set in the U.S., was actually shot in New Zealand. And Ryan makes the most of that landscape with numerous shots lingering on an empty field or a mountain range, each of which adds a very magical feel to the movie. It's beauty with a purpose, too, as these shots seem to reinforce Jay's optimistic view of the world.

But is it actual magic? Or is Jay just naive and optimistic? Director and screenwriter John Maclean contrasts Jay's worldview with Silas' through its cold and matter-of-fact approach to violence and tragedy. There are gun fights galore throughout Slow West, and when people die, it's without fanfare or any dramatic music playing in the background. It just is. Or, well, is it? This is the film's give and take, and it's an effective one at that.

Also effective: Unlike the Westerns of yore, where Native-Americans and vaguely racist Mexican stereotypes abounded as side characters or enemies to the white males, Slow West does a fine job of showing how much of a melting pot America was during its setting's time. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is that, throughout their journey, most of the people that Jay and Silas encounter are of African-American, Native-American or European origin; few are “American” through and through. You also hear at least three different languages throughout the movie. Slow West, better so than most of its touchstones, showcases well that the American West was mostly immigrant country. And, more than that, reinvention country: Everyone in this movie is in search of something or escaping something.

And that honesty is refreshing. In a time when genre movies deconstruct tropes and plot devices in very flashy manners, it's nice to see a movie that aims instead to subtly tweak the formula and show off a harsh life that's full of beauty. Slow West's setting is an unruly one that lent it self to many wondrous things. And by capturing this so well, the film stands as a fine entry into the Western realm, and one well worth watching for that reason.

Grade: B+.

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