Release Date: May 15, 2015 (Limited and VOD)
Director: John Maclean
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 84 min.
I really wanted to like Slow West, especially after seeing the trailer, which, I must say, makes this film look way more entertaining and comedic than it actually is. It made Slow West look like a witty Western that was copiously packed with action scenes and starred a skilled set of actors slinging a bit of dark humor.
Yet writer/director John Maclean delivers a more subdued version of the above in his first feature that, yes, has some comedic relief (albeit not my kind of humor) and, yes, has some well-choreographed, horse-opera-style shoot-’em-ups and even a visual pun or two, but ultimately what emerged was a much more watered-down version of what I had been anticipating.
Slow West is mostly a dramatic portrayal about encounters with the monstrosities of the American frontier in 19th-century Colorado, as encountered by a naïve Scottish teenager (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his callous navigator and protector (Michael Fassbender) and the ruthless American scoundrel and gang leader (Ben Mendelsohn) hot on their trail. The film is set against the backdrop of the Wild West – expertly designed by Kim Sinclair (The Last Samurai, The Adventures of Tintin) – and full of a colorful cast of characters – brought to life through period garb by Kirsty Cameron (Whale Rider).
Actors Fassbender (also an executive producer on the film), Smit-McPhee and Mendelsohn give serviceable performances in their portrayals of travelers in search of outlaws on the lam, played by Caren Pistorius and Rory McCann, but character development is achingly lacking and the actors’ talents are very much underutilized.
Perhaps intentionally, Slow West doesn’t hold the viewer’s proverbial hand throughout the movie. It offers clues and references to these characters’ underlying emotions and their pasts. On one hand, I liked not being beaten over the head with exposition, but this film walks a very fine line between just the right amounts of backstory needed to set up a big reveal and not quite enough to make you feel sympathy for its protagonists.
A discerning viewer might say that Slow West is a story about love, or even several love stories, and the fact that it is depicted as a Western is more of a plot device rather than a genre categorization. Sure, there’s the obligatory horse-mounted gunslingers and antihero duking it out across sweeping landscapes, but a high-noon standoff does not alone a Western make. This is a tragic tale that is decidedly modern, yet classically written, and seems to have trouble marrying the two into a tight, even-toned story.
Lovingly adorned in spurs and cowboy hats, Slow West is beautiful, well-acted production that is bogged down by subplots and side stories and can’t seem to find its voice or purpose. That, combined with dreadfully long lags throughout the runtime and a lack of abundant oater action, keeps this film from becoming the clever, fresh take on the definitive Western that it could have been.