He’s not even nineteen years old, and somehow Kodi Smit-McPhee might be the most typecast actor in movies today. Whether it’s The Road or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or Young Ones, Smit-McPhee somehow always plays a wide-eyed innocent who must contend with hard people in a hardened landscape. He has the right look for such material: he is downright gaunt, with large eyes that make him look younger than his actual age. Slow West may not take place in a post-apocalyptic future, but its outlaw characters exist outside society in a similar way. John Maclean, making his feature-length debut, has an eye for composition, particularly when Smit-McPhee and the other actors strike a silhouette in Big Sky country. This is the sort of meandering road movie where the destination is more important – and more exciting – than the journey itself.
Jay (Smit-McPhee) somehow made it from Scotland to the American frontier without a scratch on him. When we first meet Jay, thieves nearly take everything he has, at least until Silas (Michael Fassbender) intervenes. Silas sees Jay cannot handle the harsh realities of the West, so he strikes up a bargain: he’ll escort Jay, providing full protection, for a crisp $100. There is no specific destination; instead, Jay wants to reunite with Rose (Caren Pistorius), who had to flee her homeland for reasons that are his fault. Jay tries to chat with his protector, who is more content with silence, and concludes Silas is a “brute.” Of course, Silas has an ulterior motive: there is a $2000 bounty for Rose and her father (Rory McCann). The bounty also attracts all sorts of lowlifes, including a gang and a deadly sniper, so Jay in effect creates a trap for his love. The irony is not lost on him.
Working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, many of Maclean’s compositions are downright stunning. Slow West has more topographic variety than the typical Western, and Ryan’s camera uses the zoom to highlight a character’s dominance over their environment, or their submission to it. The landscape never gets the best of Silas, for example, while the austere landscapes have a way of punishing Jay’s inexperience. For the first two thirds, anyway, the look of Slow West is the best thing about it since the episodic structure of a road movie is a touch too distant and bizarre. There is one sequence where Jay and Silas enter a trading post, and while the scene unspools like a mean-spirited short story, the cruel payoff is a touch too obvious. Ben Mendelsohn, another typecast actor, pops up as a bounty hunter, and his boozy interaction with Silas highlights the uneasy balance between a personal code and violent Social Darwinism. Slow West celebrates clichés in an offhand, gentle way, as if Maclean wants to share a joke with his audience. It’s a pleasant technique, even if genre deconstruction is no longer that subversive anymore.
The real rewards in Slow West happen in its final half hour, when all the heroes and villains approach Rose’s home. Maclean lays out the action with simple editing, defining the house and its surrounding land so we know the precise location of each encroaching threat. The shoot-out has the fatalist, macabre logic of the shoot-out at the climax of LA Confidential, another modern genre film, except Slow West has the added advantage of striking imagery that could belong in an issue of National Geographic. The exteriors are made all the more poignant with bizarre, mean-spirited visual gags that veer into dark comic territory. While it does not earn its ending, exactly, Maclean has the wisdom to realize that he can have sympathy for his characters, even if he lets them befall one calamity after another.