Let's drift.

There’s more to life than surviving


Early in SLOW WEST, a character is threatened at gunpoint. Being of reasonable mind, this character actually tries to settle the matter with logic and reason. The problem with that is that the world is an illogical and unreasonable place. It’s illogical and unreasonable now, and it was even more so in the wild west when the way of the gun lorded over all. The stakes were high, and the bounties were sometimes higher.

Not long after that first moment at gunpoint, a second standoff takes place, and an entirely different character tries to use logic and reason. The difference is that this time he isn’t trying to save his own life, he’s trying to save his assailant from losing theirs.

Such is the world of SLOW WEST. One minute you’re worried about what’s coming from the barrel, the next you’re worried about the person pulling the trigger.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young man from Scotland who has travelled to America in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), the girl he loves. A violent disagreement has sent them both running from Scotland, and Jay believes he is the cause of this division. In America, he is well-provisioned…perhaps too well-provisioned. He’s so well-provisioned that he risks crippling his horse under the weight of it all. On his journey, he finds himself confronted by bandits ready to rob him…or kill him…or both.

Into this skirmish walks Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a lone rogue who saves Jay’s life and sees quite quickly how far out of his element Jay is. He offers to be his guide and protector for a modest fee. Knowing how much this will increase his odds of being reunited with Rose, Jay takes Silas up on the offer.

However as they drift into the west, it quickly becomes clearer and clearer just how difficult a journey this will be. For starters, Rose and her travelling companion – her father John – are wanted fugitives with bounties on their heads. So while Jay is hoping to find her to rekindle their fractured romance, there are many other men trying to track Rose down for far less heartwarming reasons. And as if that isn’t bad enough, the duo are making their way through some treacherous territory and anything from a flash thunderstorm to a stop at a five and dime could spell trouble.

Reuniting with lost love is easy; it’s surviving that’s the hard part.


Caren Pistorius in Slow West


There’s a fable in the middle of SLOW WEST about notoriety. It hangs on the way the wild west was dotted with so many brawlers and bastards, and how so many of them were worth a certain amount of money dead or alive. The fable goes that a would-be heel wanted to also have a bounty on his head, and when he discovered a fake bounty, he did what he could to increase its value.

However, as his value increased, so too did the scrutiny on who he might be, and what he might be doing.

I feel like that’s an apt metaphor for the film in particular and society on the whole.

SLOW WEST gets to make its bones as an under-the-radar indie. It doesn’t have a demographic to please, a box office contest to win, or a franchise to live up to. It’s a quiet campfire standing juxtaposed to the fireworks lighting the night skies every weekend. Deep down, it may want to be as notorious as the pyrotechnicians racking up the box office bank, but by keeping its head down and going about its business, it attracts less scrutiny. It’s able to remain a secret handshake; a beloved volume we pass with love from person to person.

The film challenges our assumptions on how much we know and what we believe we are capable of. Since Jay is able to read a volume on survival, he believes he has what it takes to survive in the American frontier. This is true of a lot of us lately. We sit ourselves down and skim a Pinterest board or watch a YouTube clip and suddenly we feel like we’re prepared to build a deck or design a dress. The truth is that it’s always been easy to let overconfidence take over, and never more so than the present. While nobody ever died from building a deck or designing a dress, people have died trying to undertake adventures they weren’t prepared for.

One day you think you know how to chop down a tree, a few years later some passers-by are snickering at your remains underneath said tree.

True to its core conceit, the film knows how to travel light. In fact, at times, one could even suggest that it’s travelling too light. The film arrives at a svelte 84 minutes. Had it drawn things out a little longer, we might have had time to dig into Payne’s cold calculation, or Silas’ compromised morals. We might have been able to see the lessons Rose learned on the road to her homestead and see how they shaped her into who she is when we finally rally up with her.

It’s a curious critique, but my favorite one to make: I wanted more.

Before the sun sets on SLOW WEST, audiences are treated to some exquisite scenery, some deeply tense scenes, and one of the best shootouts in recent memory. This is a splendid movie with great ambition; a film that wants to be notorious. It’s advantage is that it isn’t notorious…not yet anyway. But next time they pass through town, the reward for all involved will likely be much higher.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on SLOW WEST.