Film Review: Slow West

If I’m honest, I’m really not the biggest fan of Westerns. Too often I find them reflecting their environment being dry, coarse, stifling and slow. Yet for some reason I continue to happily watch them, only to be disappointed, as again they fail to invoke any emotional response besides boredom. The Homesman being a perfect example from my recent past. So it should come as no surprise that when people started to proclaim a Western to be “the perfect Western… the real deal” I forgot all that went before and accepted the unexplainable pull of its promise.

That perfection came from John Maclean’s first feature film – Slow West. And whilst I expected it to pass me by, purely as it didn’t appear the type of film that would naturally get a widespread big screen release, I was given optimism when the poster for it appeared on the wall of my local multiplex. My fear was founded though, and even with the advertising, it never arrived so I’ve had to wait, and wait, for it to finally be released ‘on-demand’ before I could get a chance to see whether, this time, it would finally provide me with a Western I actually enjoyed.

Michael Fassbender & Kodi Smit-McPhee - Slow West

Sadly though, it didn’t. It repeated the trick of every western that has gone before and just left me bored as it slowly trudged through a linear story, attempting to provide the illusion of depth through character driven motive. It failed simply because it used characters I never came to like. The problem is that I never felt like I managed to really get behind their eyes. I never felt what I was meant to feel or even understand why I was supposed to. Don’t get me wrong the performances by Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee are good, and right from the outset I saw the character rather than the actor, but apart from a few fleeting moments where their relationships has a meta-paternal edge, that does weakly come across, they are simple two people forced together on a journey.

This coming together is made more annoying by the fact that their relationship and subsequent journey are meant to be the heart of the film. It’s meant to be the questions of loyalty, and friendship, and betrayal that underpin the power of the film and provide the dimensional intrigue; but they never truly come across as anything other than a representation of an idea. The characters don’t live the emotion they simply portray it. I am convinced this all comes from the film’s lack of pace. It causes every emotion to simply tease its description without ever having the strength to force it out the screen. It’s not that Slow West feels shy or scared to pack a punch, it’s just a case that it feels more like it is reading from a script rather off by heart. Everything feels just a bit too conservative and careful, like they already know the next line to truly believe in what they are saying.

Slow West may be monotonously withdrawn and hard to enjoy, but visually, it looks the part. It feels period and as mentioned earlier, it invokes the standard Western tradition of sandpapering your skin while chewing tobacco. I cannot criticise it for that though because its appearance is virtually the only redeeming feature. It is set in the 1800s and it looks like the 1800s. But as I’m sure you appreciate, when the pinnacle quality of a film is that the set feels correct, you know it’s not going to live long in your admiration or memory after the credits roll.

John Maclean (Director) - Slow West

A lot had been made of the fact that this was John Maclean’s first feature film after years playing music in The Beta Band. He’s obviously not the first director to cross a creative genre – Steve McQueen (director of 12 Years A Slave) started out as an artist (winning the 1999 Turner Prize), whilst Tom Ford (director of A Single Man) started out as a fashion designer. Both McQueen and Ford bring that experience to the screen though, you can see their past in their work and yet Maclean doesn’t. The Beta Band produced an eclectic sound but Slow West is just a run of the mill paint by numbers affair. Maclean, on this offering, lacks a unique fingerprint and that doesn’t bode well for the future.

I really hoped that Slow West would be different, that it would be the film to finally end the constant belief that a Western could be more than a disappointing failure. But again it has only served to reinforce the point. I think the idea behind the film was sound and potentially original, but everything was just too removed and lacklustre to be more than a painful, but thankfully short, slow trot to the credits.

5 out of 10 stars (5 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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