Skip to main content

You need chaperoning, and I'm the chaperone.

Slow West
(2015)

(SPOILERS) It makes sense that Slow West, a beguiling, oddball and melancholic little western arrives courtesy of one of the guiding lights of The Beta Band and The Aliens, whose songs were beguiling, oddball and melancholic. John Maclean’s feature debut reunites him with Michael Fassbender following several short films together, and it’s the kind of fractured, eccentric vision of the Old West redolent of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.


There are no doubt other filmmakers who will come to mind watching Slow West, including the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, and the vibrant colour schemes of Jean Pierre-Jeunet. But Maclean doesn’t come over as an imitator; his western is very much its own thing, an off-kilter odyssey in which Kodi Smith-McPhee’s innocent gentry Jay Cavendish is guided across an eclectic landscape by Fassbender’s bounty hunting “brute” Silas Selleck. The object of Jay’s quest is his love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland with her father John (Rory McCann) following a fatal accident involving Jay’s father. Jay’s motives are pure but misguided, while those of everyone else hunting the Rosses (for a $2,000 rewarded) are impure but clearly motivated.


Maclean’s starting point was his observation that all characters in westerns tend to sound American, rather than reflecting the strong immigrant reality. While no one would accuse his film of reflecting any kind of “reality” of the West, it does continually reference the divide between what we imagine and what is “true”. It is ironic that Jay, who has arrived uncorrupted in a violent land (as Silas keeps telling him it is) traverses it almost angelically protected – barring theft – until he happens upon his intended (in coincidental parallel to Fury Road, at one point he stops an arrow with his) … who shoots him, thinking he’s one of the bounty hunters come to get her. And then she doesn’t even realise it is him until he has lain there bleeding out for a spell. As she says to Silas, “His heart was in the wrong place” something both Silas and Jay’s own subconscious attempted to impart (he dreams of Silas and Rose making domestic together, which becomes the final scene).


And their domestic world comes with an instant offspring, the kids Jay leaves parentless when he shoots their Swedish mother; one can’t see Jay as being punished for this, but certainly his downfall comes from lacking the tools to deal with this world (Silas attempts to calm the young woman and even bounty hunter Payne, played with a little less creepy malevolence than usual by Ben Mendelsohn, takes the children with him when Silas and a reluctant Jay leave them behind). When Jay tells three Congolese travellers “Love is universal like death” the two are destined to dovetail in the unkindest of ways for him. Werner (Andrew Roberti), a writer on the injustices to the Native American population, waxes lyrical that “In a short time, this will be a long time ago”, the selective nostalgia and romanticised mythology Maclean is in part indulging, and then steals Jay’s possessions and horse. And yet, ultimately Silas sides with the poetic dream, rather than the harsh reality ("There is more than life to survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that").


Slow West is quirky, rather than uproariously funny; skeletal arms stretch either side of a tree that has flattened its feller, one of Payne’s men tells a shaggy dog story about manufacturing a wanted poster for a colleague, Jay and Silas stretch a washing line between their horses to dry their clothes (leading to the picture’s standout moment of slapstick violence), and Silas – normally the hero of these things – spends the final shootout injured, smoking a cigar. Indeed, it’s Rose, rather than her father, who has all the common-sense about this world, which is why she and Silas end up living together and Jay and John lie dead, Maclean furnishing reminder cuts of all the bodies that have mounted up during this really not so violent movie (at least in tone).


Maclean handles his action (“Kill that house!”) as he handles his landscapes, though; sumptuously, poetically, and vibrantly, making creative use of the length and breadth of the frame, and, as you might expect, the musical choices are immaculate (Jed Kurzel provided the score). Fassbender doesn’t quite look the part in his cowboy hat, but his performance more than makes up for this, and Smit-McPhee may have missed out on Spider-Man but he’s the perfect encapsulation of the innocent naif. The Ho! For the West! volume Jay carries with him might well have been the title if the Coen Brothers had made this, but there’s more feeling here than the brothers usual imbue in their work, the kind of emotional underbelly either of the McDonagh brothers might lend a western if they saw fit to tackle the genre. I’m eager to see whatever Maclean comes up with next.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas