These days, Westerns seem to either be smaller art-house fare or destined box-office flops. Michael Agresta’s phenomenal article “How the Western Was Lost (and Why It Matters)” touches on a few reasons why — see The Lone Ranger, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex, or don’t see them — and a few reasons the erosion of the genre marks a sad day for American Cinema. Agresta is mainly writing about the public perception of the Western and not necessarily about whether Jonah Hex is any good or not (it’s not), and so the commentary on the smaller art-house stuff is limited. He’d agree, though, I think, that the more limited platform of independent and small-studio filmmaking is where the majority of “good” Westerns are being produced these days.
And Slow West is somewhat of an interesting film to consider in the larger context of The American Western, a long-standing genre with a hugely important but slightly malleable history as outlined by Agresta. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as the young dreamer Jay and Michael Fassbender as the mysterious drifter Silas, Slow West is an undeniably style-heavy piece that takes full advantage of the fact that it’s not a big-budget tentpole. In doing so, the film retains a self-awareness that manages to be less wink-wink than you might expect.
The title is the obvious indicator that this is a Western. Yes, plenty of films have “West” in the title — but show me one that isn’t _____ in the West or _____ of the West or just West Side Story. There must be one, right? I’ve searched and come up with zilch. Regardless, Slow West is at the very least one of the rare few titles to suggest that what we’re about to witness is not simply a story that takes place in the West — the title suggests that the focus is the West, not the dreamers and drifters but the whole surrounding.
You might say that’s a bit of a stretch (and you might say, even, that the title sucks, whereas Once Upon a Time in the West does not, and I might even agree with you). It’s the makeup of Slow West that really indicates this self-awareness, though. Just as a million drifters in a million Westerns have done before, Jay and Silas happen upon a band of people sitting in the desert toiling away at…well, they’re not toiling away at anything. They’re just there, waiting to be happened upon by the protagonists. Silas rides by, but Jay stops and exchanges four quick lines of dialogue, one of which is “Love is universal, like death.” The Westerns of Cormac McCarthy receive the primary nod here, as there’s always a stranger to encounter on the trail, always some lowlife with which to exchange universal truths before riding onward.
Silas, too, is your prototypical drifter. Jay even notes as much: “You’re the silent, lonely drifter.” Silas appears from nowhere and purports to be Jay’s protector, as the naïve kid would probably be killed if left to fend for himself. In reality, Silas is hunting the same thing Jay’s hunting — Rose, the love of Jay’s life — for the bounty that’s been placed on her head. This isn’t some revelation late in the film, but rather a fact made known to us (but not to Jay) relatively soon after his arrival.
Strangely enough, though the aesthetic of Slow West might resemble that of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, the film is closer in kinship to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. These are Westerns that aren’t so much meant to immerse you in the frontier experience as shine a light on these tropes and elements of the genre at large. In Slow West Jay gets shot through the hand with an arrow and two Native Americans leap aboard their horses to make off with them. Silas and Jay don’t leap into action but just stand, dumbfounded, as they’re taken advantage of. Silas even looks at Jay’s hand and says “nice catch.” The Natives fail in their attempt without Silas or Jay lifting a finger, and the entire scene seems straight out of Jarmusch’s film. The shootout in Dead Man between Johnny Depp’s character and Gabriel Byrne’s character is a similar touchpoint, with both of them remaining paralyzed in place until one of the bullets finally finds the mark.
Before that, Jay and Silas happen upon a skeleton of a man in the forest killed not by arrows or bullets, not by Natives or bounty hunters, but by himself. A tree lays horizontally across the bones with one arm sticking out from either side, an axe clutched in the right fist. Jay and Silas laugh at the irony of this, comment on Darwin, and then ride along. Moreso even than the arrow-through-the-hand scene, this brief interlude seems right at home in Dead Man. “That’s a shame,” says Jay. Silas looks at him sideways with that Fassbender smirk: “Is it?”
On the whole, these darkly comic moments of self-awareness are surprising and enjoyable. The film is short — which, when held up against the typical epic Western, might in itself provide a measure of commentary — and far from perfect, but worth a watch for lovers of the genre. Fassbender and McPhee are fine, as is the endlessly-talented Ben Mendelsohn, and even though none of them turn in anything too surprising it’s still a ride worth riding with these three at the helm. In the long annals of the American Western it’s doubtful that a film like this would hold much standing, but excluding the rare modern masterpiece — like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — and given the current state of the genre, Slow West is definitely one of the more notable entries in recent memory.