' ' Cinema Romantico: Slow West

Monday, July 20, 2015

Slow West

There is an incredibly indelible shot in “Slow West” in which a “Ho! For The West!!” guidebook, a kind of traveler’s manual to frontier America, winds up floating in a small creek that has sprung up in the midst of a flash flood. It’s an instantly emblematic illustration of the many misty-eyed hopes every immigrant would have brought to old world America, to strike out for the land of milk and honey and then have their grand intentions washed away. Back east there is “violence and suffering.” To the west there are “dreams and toil.” And here in the middle, where our characters slowly inch their way forward, where the only homes glimpsed feel positively Lilliputian contrasted against the endless spate of snow-capped peaks, where white men seemingly hunt native Americans for sport, it can feel like a netherworld. You’re tempted to think this isn’t Manifest Destiny so much as the remnants of the apocalypse, but the film stops just short of such all-encompassing misery. Rather it’s a film at marvelous odds, one in which a host of desperate and despicable characters move to and fro in a landscape so panoramically striking that it seems at times born more of a Peter Jackson fantasy film (indeed, it was shot in New Zealand) than a terse western tracking toward a bloody shootout.

That crucial innocence can be traced directly to Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a Scottish teenager on a continental search for his one true love, the mellifluously named Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Our narrator, Silas (Michael Fassbender), an Irish bounty hunter who views the whole wide world with a wary eye, can’t figure how the utterly guileless Cavendish has lasted so long in such a brutal land. But then, naivety comes across as Cavendish’s foremost weapon. Everyone around him is broken, driven to extremes, forced to survive rather than live, and still Cavendish maintains a dignified air. He dismisses Silas as a “brute”. He puts far too much trust in a seemingly kindly author. He truly believes that Rose is his personal Willamette Valley. It’s head-shaking but simultaneously endearing.

If Cavendish is heroically, foolishly static, Silas is the wild card, a character whose motivation continually re-aligns as the story progresses. Though it’s John MacLean’s directorial debut, he never feels rushed. Rather he lets “Slow West” unfold at a pace befitting both its title and its setting, a time when getting anywhere was an arduous haul. As it opens, Silas rescues Cavendish from danger and installs himself as the youngster’s guide through the unforgiving wilds. Something more must be lurking, but it takes a good twenty minutes before the reveal, which allows the entirety of the stakes to fall into place – that is, Rose and her father are wanted, a $2000 reward, alive or dead, and Silas intends to collect, using Cavendish as his map to the treasure.

Throughout, “Slow West” emits a heightened vibe, almost to the point where you question the validity of what you’re seeing. One of its very first shots is Cavendish laying on his back beneath the night sky, pretending to shoot out the stars, each star taken out with a soft “ping” on the movie’s soundtrack. It’s like he’s laying down to lull himself to sleep with his favorite storybook story. The relentless National Geographic-ism of MacLean’s direction only accentuates this sensation as it gleefully indulges in the jaw-dropping rugged landscapes even in amidst so much bloodshed and sadness. When Cavendish briefly finds himself all alone, with nothing but a blanket and his long underwear, the cold bearing down on him, the wind whipping, the scenery is still staggering, the shot itself still mesmerizing. It’s strangely difficult to sense his fear because of the aesthetic beauty, and yet it’s because MacLean intentionally wants to strain out that fear.

As the film progresses, the more it becomes reasonable to wonder if Silas is protecting his young charge from the truth rather than concealing it simply to collect on the bounty, as if trying to maintain Cavendish’s innocence. The latter is a character from a fairytale plopped into a goddam tragedy and it becomes a question of which one will win out. It’s not that the film wants it both ways, precisely, but that romanticism runs smack dab into realism and forces its youthful main character to decide. And even if “Slow West” itself might view his ultimate idealistic stance with a dose of skepticism, it nonetheless has the good grace to allow him space to still believe.

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