Review: “Slow West” (**½)

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Editor’s Note: This review was written by the newest member of the Reel Georgia family—and someone I’ve been chasing after to contribute for quite a while—Jessica Hinckle. An expert wordsmith, script supervisor, film festival organizer and all-around human woman, I know that everyone will appreciate the wonderfully unique, clever and personal touch that Jessica will bring to her stories. -CM

Michael Fassbender stars in “Slow West.”

“Slow West” is the directorial debut of John Maclean and I can only imagine that he woke up one day with some kind of deep-seated need to combine his experience with unrequited love with his Wes Anderson fetish and then… make it a western? Or rather, whatever caricature of a western he’d conjured in a dream… a dream induced possibly by an absinthe bender. No, seriously.

However, it’s difficult for me to fault this artsy bit of film (it’s 84 minutes) for blatantly defying the tropes of the typical western—that I can get on board with; westerns have been done, done again, been shot in the head, and then have gotten back up to John Wayne themselves back across the desert for one more whiskey. But it’s far too obvious that its primary purpose was that. And it wasn’t terribly convincing. Because a film can’t stand on a quirky idea alone. It needs a story—one that, you know, makes sense.

The story, set in the 1870s, follows a young Scottish lad, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), from Scotland to America in search of his one true love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius); a journey of a love-sick, sleeve-stitched heart, that’s more in love with an imagined relationship than an actual, at-all reciprocated one. Ultimately, the story itself ends up being a haphazardly stitched-together patchwork doll of an unrequited love cautionary tale.

Be honest—you’ve been there.

Now, why was Rose transplanted to America? This is where it gets fuzzy. Her change of address from  shack in Scotland to shack in America is due to some ‘accident’ caused by Jay that is never fully fleshed out—nor is the reason why there’s a bounty on her head in America, brought on by whatever this accident was, way back in Scotland. Must have been bad to warrant a country-wide bounty on another continent (in the 1800s), but who knows, since they spent so little time on it. How would you even spread the word efficiently? I guess we’re just supposed to go along with that one, so that Silas (Michael Fassbender), a freelance bounty hunter, has a reason to attach himself to Jay and pose as his chaperone in order to be led right to the bounty.

Clever girl.

Of course, through the duration of the journey Silas starts to feel for the kid and like him—half-heartedly depicted through an awkward scene where Silas teaches Jay how to shave… even though this kid has never had a hair that wasn’t above his nose in his entire life…

Oh hey weirdly forced plot device—how’s the weather?

It’s instances like those, and there are many, that completely unravel anything this film tries to establish. Even as a semi-comedic caricature it falls short, as it never fully embraces that (which would have been great). But, alas, it’s too busy misappropriating its time. Which is what brings me to the most frustrating aspect of this film—it’s 84 minutes of gorgeous cinematography that serves absolutely no purpose! Why, Maclean?! That time could have been spent on character and story development (there isn’t a single character arc to speak of)—but was instead indulgently spent showing off New Zealand… with, you know, familiar mountain ranges obviously painted in the background, plopped onto the foreground, because… America.

It’s a quirky mess of a feature film, that could have been a successful short film with some tweaks. Considering that Maclean is an award-winning short film director, it isn’t terribly surprising that the long-form storytelling just isn’t there yet with this first run. Nor is the fact that the best ten minutes of the film are the last ten minutes, propped up by a couple stellar, rewarding moments. Everything else is a meandering affair only marginally sold by the talent of Fassbender—who is hilariously unaffected by anything that happens. Always.

If you want a couple laughs—and I do mean, like, four tops—or if you want to see some striking locations and won’t be bothered by hysterically unauthentic Native Americans or the fact that Rose is ‘hiding’ in a really bright house in the middle of a wide open field (because it looks good on camera, not because it makes sense, or is even nonsensically funny)… knock yourself out. In my opinion, if your film isn’t doing anything that a coffee table book with some great photography and amusing captions couldn’t do… that’s a problem.

Harshness aside, if Maclean can figure out long-form comedic storytelling and how to use his strengths in pursuit of the story—and dial back the Wes Anderson, because whoa dude—I’ll give him another shot. For a directorial debut, it isn’t a disaster—it just didn’t achieve what it set out to be. Better luck next time.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

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