John MacLean’s darkly humorous Slow West places an ingenuous 16-year-old Scot, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), in the brutal world of Nineteenth Century Colorado. Grizzled bounty hunters roam the baked plains, happily shooting to gain the rewards promised by the classic ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ posters, more accurately described as ‘Dead or Dead’ by worldly Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). With wide-eyed, romantic Jay seen by everyone as ‘a jackrabbit in a den of wolves’, Silas seems a useful guide as they both ride West towards Jay’s lost love.
The ‘odd-couple’ of Jay and Silas are intentionally overplayed: Jay looks hopefully up at the stars, and speaks like an Austen character, whilst Silas sees a grim survival of the meanest in a world of death as the only central truth. Their extreme characterisation serves to mock countless ‘road buddy’ films, whilst Westerns in general are constantly interrogated by the almost comic spates of mindless killing. MacLean shows a keen awareness of cinematic tropes, and he justifiably sends them up. Why should we celebrate the hero of Westerns? Why elevate a brutal existence? If many action films have their root in Westerns – the maverick cowboy still carries a gun, but kills in modern cities, not dusty saloons – then MacLean also questions the po-faced films with which we are all too familiar.
The director deftly handles the signposts of genre films; the setting has everything that you might include in a simple description of a Western. Cartoonish ‘Wanted’ posters adorn tin sheds, whilst the snow-capped mountains fringing the shots bring both beauty, and the fear that only more overwhelming struggle will meet the restless travellers. MacLean’s awareness of cliché helps the two endearing central characters to discuss the grand concepts of love and death with an honesty that takes away any awkwardness. The naïve lover of the stars is allowed to speak in florid language because he exists in a film that looks back at older films with an arch smile.