More than any other genre, the Western feels compelled to undermine its own history and tropes in order to stand out. An effective deconstruction can have just the opposite effect; The Assassination of Jesse James is the Western at its most lyrical and self-reflexive, but still steeped in the legends that made the genre what it is. Few Westerns can touch Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece, and the ones that can are the epitomes of their oldest trope: the solitary man going out of his way to do the right thing. John Wayne is long gone, and Clint Eastwood’s out of the saddle, so it’s a curious refreshment to find John MacLean’s feature debut Slow West does little to rock the boat. At its core is a solid old-school oater in new clothes. A little familiar, but with enough fresh elements to satisfy.”
Our man riding solo across the rugged terrain of the American Mid-West for the evening is Silas Selleck. This desperado is played by Michael Fassbender, and automatically fits into a classic man-of-the-West mould. He’s solitary, charismatic and in control. These traits are only accentuated by his travelling companion. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) arrives in the New World from Scotland in the hopes of finding Rose (Caren Pistorious), the girl he loves who travelled ahead of him. Smit-McPhee graduates from fine turns in The Road and Let Me In to a role that sees him in no less peril, and scarcely looking any older. That said, his baby-faced Jay is possessed of a great deal of purpose and naive likeability. The film aims for a similar style of simple trustworthiness. Silas’ narration opens with “Once upon a time…”, while MacLean’s eye maintains a certain whimsicality and colour throughout. There are more primary colours here than one normally associates with the genre, which are brought to life by Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena, Jimmy’s Hall). The bright blue uniforms of the Injun killers Jay encounters in the opening scenes stand out in the middle of the forested setting. Soon, Jay is rescued from their bloodthirsty gaze by Silas, who feels compelled to chaperone this green little wanderer across the beautiful but foreboding landscape. We’ve been here before, but at least the trail is a pretty one.
From this early encounter, Slow West follows an eventful but episodic trail. Our central pairing encounter various sources of danger, not least Silas’ former gan, led by Ben Mendelsohn’s Payne and his massive fur coat. Choices like that coat, the bright colours and sudden bursts of violence help Slow West walk a fine line between childlike whimsy and grit, a trick that has become the preserve of Wes Anderson in recent years. When Payne initiates a shootout by ordering his gang to “Kill that house!”, there’s as much chance of a laugh as a sudden death. With its endless pastures and violent streak, Slow West isn’t revisionist; it simply presents familiar elements in a new light, and a bright light at that.