It’s a funny thing to me that so many critics are describing Slow West as being a reinvention of the western genre. It’s not. This isn’t a neo-western like the Coen’s No Country for Old Men or Amirpour’s recent vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Nor is it in the vein of Django Unchained which took the genre and shot its director’s trademark style through its very heart. Instead this is a classic genre piece with chinking spurs, tenuous loyalties and a poetic sensibility and lyricism which lifts it from being consumed by its violent subject matter and enabling it to act as a commentary on whatever subject its writer and director see fit.
The film begins with Kodi Smit-McPhee wistfully staring at the night sky whilst pining for his lost lady love. He’s a young and naive Scotsman who is unknowingly wandering further and further out of his depth in the pitiless, blood-soaked plains of America. He is, to quote the film, ‘a jack-rabbit in a den of wolves’ and is in desperate need of a guiding hand. That protection comes in the form of Fassbender’s rough around the edges and perhaps not entirely trustworthy Silas. There are undoubtedly shades of True Grit here, but whereas Hailee Steinfeld was arguably the grittiest and most determined of them all in the Coen’s film, here Smit-McPhee is very much a romantic child, matching her grit with his lovestruck determination to find his love. The film is as concerned with telling a story of young love, or perhaps more specifically the irrational feelings associated with being in love when very young, as it is the tale of western outlaws. But genre fans shouldn’t fear, it’s certainly a real and occasionally bloody treat for all those who love a good, classic western.
One issue which I do take with Slow West is how it treated its ending. I won’t spoil anything but I’ll just say that it slightly misjudges the moment at which to draw the film’s events to a close. We have a very strong final act here which is really well handled and surprisingly affecting, however the film outstays its welcome for about a minute and half, and leaves us slightly less fulfilled than we could have been. It’s not a deal breaker, in fact this is one of the strongest films which I have seen this year so far. However it’s one of a few niggles which stops this from being a real classic in the making.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I was talking so specifically about the closing of the film above I would feel vaguely absurd using the words ‘out stays its welcome’ because at a mere 84 minute running time this is one trim and efficient movie. It has a Coen-esque reductionist feel where we are getting everything we need without any wasted time, shots or characters. Each character and the film in general lives on in your mind well past the time the credits have rolled. Fassbender takes on what, at least initially, is pretty much a stock genre character and yet instantly manages to make him feel lived in and believable. Opposite him Smit-Mcphee impresses with his lovesick cherub who may graduate into being a romantic hero, a devil or peacekeeping cowboy depending upon where the hard road takes him. It’s a gritty film which is bathed in beauty by its cinematographer and it’s a dark film about death and lost love whilst also being a funny road movie. Most of all though it’s a real western, and its good to see one back on the big screen.
What is the film’s greatest strength? The two lead actors.
Its greatest weakness? It tries to wrap things up a little too much during the final few minutes.
Would I see it again? Absolutely. Save for a few niggles this is a strong, intelligent Western in a time that’s bereft of them.
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