First published by Grolsch FilmWorks
“Go west, young man,” was a popular expression in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, as an injunction to new Americans to cultivate the fertile land beyond the perceived boundaries of civilisation, in pursuit of Manifest Destiny. John Maclean‘s feature debut Slow West, whose title involves a verbal play on the slogan, is a reverie on what westward expansion meant – and what it cost – in the building of the American Dream.
“Dreams and toil,” is the laconic response given to 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, riffing on his rôle in The Road) when he asks for news of the west. A lovesick member of the Scottish nobility hoping to form a new family for himself that transcends class borders, Jay has only one-sided memories and ambiguous dreams to fuel his amorous quest for the fugitive commoner Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). A stranger in a strange land (not unlike Jarmusch’s titular Dead Man), Jay is, as the voiceover puts it, “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves, lucky to be alive.” The narrator is Silas (Michael Fassbender), a more experienced traveler who rescues Jay from a run-in with soldiers turned “Injun slayers”, and gets himself hired as the naïf’s escort. Jay regards the taciturn Silas as a “brute”, but as he realises that he is not alone in pursuing the wanted Rose and her father John (Rory McCann), a bond (as well, eventually, as a literal tether) develops between the young ward and his older guide.
Jay is Scottish, Silas is Irish, and on their journey they will encounter a family of Swedes, a German anthropologist (named Werner, in an apparent nod to Herzog), francophone Africans, second-generation migrants (like Ben Mendelsohn’s outlaw Payne), and natives in varying degrees of incomplete symbiosis with their colonisers. It is a skew-eyed, absinthe-tinged vision of a nation’s formative roots – and as many of these characters with their different provenances converge violently on a farmstead, that cottage, already half-seen in Jay’s dream, will become the home for a new family reconstituted from different ethnicities, cultures, classes and generations into an allegory of the New World’s future melting pot.
As though to hammer the point home, this oater, despite its explicit setting in 1870s Colorado, has been shot (on some rather odd lenses) mostly in New Zealand by a writer/director from Scotland (where the rest was filmed), with an international, non-American cast. It is an overtly artificial version of the Old West whose very constructedness only adds to the film’s oneiric vibe. We know from early on that ‘dead or alive’ is a euphemism for ‘dead or dead’, and that there certainly will be blood – but as well as making a Coen-esque clusterfuck of the climactic gunplay, Maclean also finds room for travails of the wild west that are less frequently recognised – the guidebooks for tourists, the dangers of preserved meat, and the ingenuity required to get your clothes dry on the hoof. It is a strange, singular journey into desire and desperation, pitched somewhere between anthropology and existentialism. Much as Jay’s revolver fails to fire the first time he uses it, this film may not be the fastest draw in the west – but clipping along at a mere 84 minutes, it is not (despite the title) the slowest either.