John Maclean’s “Slow West” finds poetry in an absurdly bleak Old West

Slow West poster

If Michael Fassbender has been hurting to play a cowboy, Slow West couldn’t be a weirder way to make his Western debut. As drifter Silas Selleck, who agrees to escort noble Scottish sissy Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across the Colorado territory in search of his lost love, he’s the the most traditionally Western part of the whole project, anchoring a farcical tale of unrequited love, bandits, and savages with his trademark steely reserve. All gleaming colors and dorky, plucky musical score, Slow West strikes an absurd chord. Fate weighs heavily over everything, so that whatever befalls Jay, and no matter how many times Silas rolls his eyes, their shared misfortunes are glimpsed like a dream, and they’re just going through the motions.

Writer-director John Maclean doesn’t hold back on bizarre characters and episodes, sprinkling in a gaggle of weirdos roaming in all directions, from a band of stranded French-singing troubadours and a dubious moralizing journalist to a desperate Swedish couple and a bounty hunter masquerading as a priest. To top it off there’s Jay, who spends his nights counting the constellations, relying on his romantic whimsy to carry him to his girl more than on any actual navigation. Compounding the surreal effect are the richly colored New Zealand landscapes that are meant to stand in for Colorado, giving the Old West the big top treatment as its inhabitants circle an unseen ringmaster.

A rushed conclusion cuts short what could have been a more sprawling Western, both dramatically and philosophically speaking. Caren Pistorius’s Rose is kept distant for reasons that become obvious as the story progresses, but it’s disappointing to see her and Rory McCann’s father given short shrift when their story is arguably just as interesting as, if not more than, Jay’s and Silas’s. Then again, a movie could have followed any of the rogues introduced along the way and share the same bleakly hilarious tone. Take Ben Mendelsohn, for instance, another underused talent who puts his oily lisp to terrific use as the creepy leader of Silas’ old outlaw gang.

Maclean treats the funny bone as if it resides in the heart, knocking on both at once in a test of empathy for the lovelorn Jay. The entire movie is one torturous ride for him, a nerdy cipher with nary a pinch of survival skills, who comes across who just so happens to be the modern ideal of the Old West frontiersman in Silas: independent, silent, resourceful, and trustworthy. Fassbender’s book-ending narration may sound tacky at first, but it maintains Jay’s idealism, reinforcing the notion that despite how godawful Jay’s journey is, he will create poetry in whatever end he meets.

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