Demetrios Matheou

On screen, on stage, out and about

Demetrios Matheou

June 30th, 2015
Slow West


EVER since Clint Eastwood effectively brought the western out of retirement with Unforgiven, in 1992, the genre seems to have had a greater realism about it, shorn of its black and white archetypes, its myths reconfigured. Recently, it’s being considered through European sensibilities, mirroring the fact that America itself was forged by European immigrants. Two months ago we had what might be called a Danish Western, The Salvation; now there’s a Scottish one.

It’s 1870 in Colorado, where immigrant settlers and Indians, wanderers and outlaws are traversing the wild landscape. Michael Fassbender is Silas, a taciturn and extremely capable loner, who comes across young Scot Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a naïf who clearly won’t survive long on his own. The boy has come to America in search of his childhood sweetheart, Rose Ross, and her father. Silas offers, for a price, to accompany and protect Jay on his romantic quest.

Silas is also the film’s narrator, recalling these as past events, and the Irishman’s quietly-spoken voice-over establishes both the elegiac tone of the film and his own ambiguous motivation. He calls the boy “a jack rabbit in a den of wolves.” Later, when we learn that the Rosses are wanted by the law, Silas reveals that, “Everyone knew about the bounty, except Jay. He was leading me right to it.”

He’s leading others, too, including a gang led by Payne (the always menacing Ben Mendelsohn), with whom Silas has a history. A wonderful scene during a stormy night sees the two old colleagues catch up, the tension between them adding a crackle to nature’s own.

The journey also features a startling and poignantly avoidable shoot-out involving a Scandinavian family, some African singers, an episode in a so-called haunted forest, involving Indians both imagined and comically real, and Jay’s meeting with a Christian, the pair asserting the current condition of the old world (“violence and suffering”) and new (“dreams and toil”). All roads lead to the father and daughter, and an explosive conclusion.

With cheroot frequently between his teeth (a jokey nod to Eastwood, perhaps), Fassbender plays one of his most sympathetic characters, charismatic and wry, dangerous but with an endearing vulnerability. He and the fey Smit-McPhee are good foils for each other, their characters representing experience and innocence, cynicism and idealism; Fassbender and Mendelsohn, more akin as heavyweights, have an altogether different and more electric sparring.

When he was a member of The Beta Band, John Maclean directed the band’s videos; later he made two acclaimed short films, which featured Fassbender. His first feature confirms him as a writer/director to be reckoned with.

There’s a sense here of the western being seen through fresh eyes, with an appreciation of the diversity that was inherent in the nation from the very beginning. At the same time, Slow West carries echoes of two great American westerns, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, films that combined lyricism with a profound sense of what frontier life may actually have been like. Like those directors, Maclean has forged a world that is at once believable and a little strange.

He has an excellent eye, but also a very good control of tone, setting and characterisation; his film recognises the good and bad in all of its characters. The result is brutal and sad, funny and surprising, with poetic dialogue that makes you sit up and pay attention, not least an observation that brings a stark perspective to this and all our stories. “In a short time, this will be a long time ago.”

This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald