The surreal frontier fable Slow West, written and directed by John Maclean (Man on a Motorcycle), is an absurdist deconstruction of classic Hollywood westerns whose 21st-century view of frontier mythology is as sardonic as that of the Coen brothers.
The glorious cinematography, by Robbie Ryan, sharply illustrates the disparity between the rugged majesty of the landscape and the savagery of its outlaws and adventurers, who resemble vermin scuttling through the underbrush of a perilous no man’s land.
Set in Colorado in 1870 and filmed in New Zealand, Slow West follows as unlikely a pair of traveling companions as you’ll find in a movie posing as a western. Its laconic narrator, Silas (Michael Fassbender), who speaks in clipped poetic phrases, is an experienced frontiersman and cynical bounty hunter who appoints himself the paid chaperone of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 16-year-old innocent from the Scottish Highlands. They meet by chance when the boy, who has miraculously survived his arrival in the Wild West without a scratch, is being menaced by a stray Union soldier hunting Indians for sport.
A son of aristocrats, Jay has traveled all the way to America in pursuit of his sweetheart, Rose (Caren Pistorius), a girl from a humbler background who has settled on the Plains in a cabin with her father, John (Rory McCann). Jay doesn’t know it, but the father and daughter are the targets of bounty hunters responding to wanted posters, and Silas hopes the boy will lead him to their door. A flashback reveals that Rose thinks of Jay as a younger brother and not as a lover, a possibility that the besotted Jay refuses to entertain.
The Scottish flashbacks raise more questions than they answer about why and how the father and daughter fled their homeland to end up on the edge of a wheat field in the middle of nowhere. As played by Mr. Smit-McPhee (Viggo Mortensen’s son in The Road) Jay is so dewy and naïve he suggests a mannequin freshly plucked out of clear plastic casing.
Once Silas and Jay team up, they have a series of eerie encounters with various wanderers, dreamers and crooks. They come upon three affable Congolese musicians to whom Jay speaks French. At a general store, a desperate shotgun-wielding Swede and his wife demand money and pay with their lives as their two children wait patiently outside. Jay, briefly separated from Silas, encounters a friendly anthropologist in a covered wagon who says he is “recounting the decline of the aboriginal tribes in the hope of preventing their extinction by their conversion to Christianity.”
This episodic movie is really a series of visionary flashes of the New World being born, set to twangy old-time music. Silas reflects that in Jay’s innocent eyes, they are “in the land of hope and good weather.” Silas sees it otherwise.
“Kick over any rock, and most likely a desperado would crawl out and knife you in the heart if there was a dollar in it,” he muses.
That lone researcher in his covered wagon who feeds Jay and gives him a blanket before disappearing into the night embodies the film’s dreamlike perspective when he calmly observes, “In a short time, this will be a long time ago.”
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann.
Writer-director: John MacLean.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 83 minutes. Vulgar language, violence. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Beach.