Slow West (2015, John McLean)

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“Scotland is far far away…”

1870, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young Scots aristocrat travelling through the wilderness to find his errant sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius) who fled to America with her crofter father, John Ross (Rory McCann). Though the story takes place during the Highland Clearances when landowners forced tenants from the land to make way for livestock there’s another reason for the Ross’s leaving which only becomes clear as the film progresses. Jay is hopelessly ill-equipped for his search. Though tender in years Jay represents an old aristocratic order which has no meaning in this New World. “We’re all sons of bitches…” says one character when he mentions his father’s a Lord.

Jay finds a protector in the form of Irish bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) who saves him from a trio of runaway Confederate soldiers. Offering to accompany Jay on his journey for a price, Silas has his own agenda. The Ross’s have a $2000 bounty on their heads and Silas hopes the youngster can lead him to his prize before a rival (Ben Mendolsohn) and his gang of killers gets to them first. This set-up seems simple enough and with a running time of just 85 minutes it seems obvious where this is all heading. Jay and Silas even feel like archetypes rather than fully formed characters. Jay is the romantic dreamer who follows his heart. Silas, an Eastwood-style loner, right down to his stubble and cheroot permanently hanging from the corner of his mouth. Rose a damsel in distress. Having presented these archetypes to us McLean then subverts our expectations of how they will behave during the final twenty minutes of the movie.

Slow West is an interesting addition to the modern revisionist Western though I liked it more afterwards when I had time to reflect on the film’s rejection of romanticism in favour of pragmatism. It feels to me Robert Louis Stevenson might be a strong an influence as the many Westerns Slow West recalls. Stevenson’s stories have relatively simple plots but complex human relationships at the heart of them. There is an otherworldly feel to Slow West too partly because the landscape doesn’t feel quite right. New Zealand fills in for America although the few scenes set in Scotland are filmed here. It suits the fairytale vibe McLean is going for. The Old West seen through the looking glass. Worth mentioning the accents too which won’t be appearing on any worst Scottish accents ever lists. Kodi Smit-McPhee (Australian) does a fine understated posh Scots accent while Caren Pistorius (South African born) does an impressive job of sounding like an authentic Highlander.

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