A Lamb Among Wolves (Film Review: “Slow West”)

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How far will an innocent lad from Scotland go to claim the young woman who stole his heart? Can true love survive the Wild West and the even wilder bounty hunters who see the boy as bait for a larger prize?

 

SnapShot Plot

If you’re expecting a classic frontier Western involving bounty hunters, pioneers, Native Americans and gunslingers, you will be tested to the limits of your patience with Slow Westan odd yet captivating blend of brutal realism and dreamlike beauty, shot against a vast wilderness background that stirs the imagination. This is the kind of movie that starts slowly and builds inch by inch – or in this case bullet by bullet – until it reaches a climactic sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat.

The movie stars the fiercely talented and genre jumping Michael Fassbender as a morally conflicted bounty hunter named Silas, and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish, a Scottish teen who follows his heart to the American frontier hoping for a happily-ever-after ending with his boyhood crush, Rose Ross. It seems an innocent misstep back in the old country turned into a tragic misunderstanding, causing Rose (Caren Pistorious of Cargo and The Light Between Oceans) and her father to flee Scotland for the New World, where they are now essentially fugitives on the lam. Unbeknownst to Jay, there’s a wide dragnet throughout the territoy offering a valuable bounty on the heads of Rose and her father, to be paid to the man who brings them in dead or alive. . . or, as Silas remarks to young Jay, “That means Dead or Dead.” 

When Silas offers to ‘chaperone’ the boy (for a fee), the two embark on a journey West to find the elusive Rose, encountering on the way a former associate of Silas, the menacing Payne, here played by the formidable Ben Mendelsohn (Darkest Hour; Bloodline; Ready Player One; et al) who’s also hot on the trail of Rose and her father. Before you can reload your pistol, the place is crawling with bounty hunters, one more ruthless than the last, until it all comes down to a single ambush in which Silas must decide where his loyalties lie and Jay sees himself as the hero savior and Rose’s only chance of survival.

 

 

Parting Shot

The debut film of Scottish musician-turned-filmmaker, John Maclean, Slow West is a film whose origins feel somewhat anti-mythical, in that the themes explored in this movie mostly center on the inversion of the Hollywood Western tropes. We’ve seen this treatment in other genre-defying Westerns of late – Godless, West World, just to name a few – the message being that more than honor and justice, it was savage brutality, cheating and bloodlust that settled the American West. The film’s own title, Slow West, seems to riff on the literary adage (oft attributed to the writer Horace Greeley) “Go West, young man and grow up with the country” expounding on the emerging theme of Manifest Destiny or the righteousness of the plundering, westward pioneering movement. The film draws on the power of these myths with a poetic cadence in its dialogue, and a dreamlike sense of reality mixed with harsh violence and swift action. As much as it plods along at certain points, it then plunges headlong into horror and also (in many moments) into quiet humor and sarcastic banter. The relationships aren’t quite spelled out, and for good reason, as these characters live more on an abstract plane than an actual one.

It’s no surprise that writer/director Maclean hails from the world of music, as the score for Slow West almost tells the story on its own. Like the movie itself, it is quirky, moody, somber and stirring. And the gorgeous cinematography (the film was shot in New Zealand, in fact) serves the narrative in its own way, giving a visual pronouncement to the poetic nature of the journey depicted. I find myself pondering this unique and impressive debut feature, whose images stay with me still.

Slow West is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFfsTsdJfF8

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