Scottishly, John Maclean’s first feature is a bit of a brooder that can’t keep from sometimes cracking itself up. It follows a wayward teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) through 1800s Colorado (2000s New Zealand), chasing the girl he likes (Caren Pistorius) and not realizing that his gruff bounty-hunter guide (Michael Fassbender) wants to find her too, for professional reasons. So the kid’s sort of a chump, but that doesn’t keep us from hoping things somehow might work out for him or that he’ll at least wise up if they don’t. Being maybe a softie at heart, the bounty hunter seems to share this view.
This territory isn’t new, of course. Maclean’s insight is to treat all his characters as random players on the front lines of manifest destiny, half-consciously wondering if they’re the butt of a cosmic joke. Sample dialogue: “East, what news?” “Violence and suffering. West?” “Dreams, and toil.” Or, another exchange, between the two main characters, as they mosey on horseback through the barrens: “We could have taken them in.” “In where?” Good point.
The movie looks great, in a meaningful way. Robbie Ryan’s beauty-attuned cinematography gives us a gradual focus pull from the haze of romantic hope to the cutting clarity of disillusionment. Not that tone control is always perfect here; the point-of-insight moment in Slow West’s climactic shootout seems like something Joel and Ethan Coen might have dared each other not to cut from an early draft. It’s a gag, at the protagonist’s expense, and it goes too far, even for a film that culminates in a wheat field whack-a-mole gunfight. But it’s not wholly inconsistent, as other piquant bits include a felled tree pinning the spread-armed skeleton of the man who chopped it down, and a bad guy played by Ben Mendelsohn as if trying hard not to burst into a Gary Oldman impression.
Meanwhile, Fassbender seems less antsy about channeling Clint Eastwood, and so he inherits the mantle of Western anti-hero archetype smoothly, as we always knew he would. Smit-McPhee, by now a veteran of movie frontier treks (see also The Road, Young Ones, All the Wilderness), never puts a foot wrong. The two of them together is an odd and compelling sight to behold, an encouraging sign of fresh buddy-movie blood. They have a knack for making their stylized conversations sound natural.
“Dry your eyes, kid, let’s drift,” says the bounty hunter in one of many quotables, expounding what we know is an unsustainable worldview. Their path proves to be a trail of bodies, through which the movie—no longer jesting—backtracks in silence just before it ends.
In its best moments, Slow West manages to take the piss out of genre-mandated laconicism without losing sight of why we like it. At other times, the tone gets garbled, as if Maclean hasn’t yet figured out what great comment on Westerns in general he really wants to make. That’s OK, though; it’s about the journey, right?