Sometimes a film is good precisely due to its brevity. This is usually the case when high concepts are explored at the expense of character and plotting, so that even ninety minutes becomes a bit tiresome as the sole goal of merely understanding the film’s purpose begins to wear thin. At a scant eighty-four minutes, Slow West is precisely that sort of film. It is, as the title implies, a slow and plodding western, and that is precisely the point. And though the film ends with a fantastic climax, the path there would have been arduous were it not so brief.
Our protagonist is Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy pursuing the love of his life, who has run away into seclusion due to a bounty on her head. Along the way, he meets the wandering Silas (Michael Fassbender), a gunslinger who teams up with Jay as they are headed in the same direction. Little does Jay know, however, that Silas is after the bounty on his heart’s desire, and is merely using Jay to lead him to where she likely is.
As one could expect from this set-up, Jay and Silas eventually grow closer and the pursuit of his bounty begins to weigh on Silas’s heart, but that’s not really the point of the film. No, the film isn’t in any hurry to get to its destination, with Jay stumbling into diversion after diversion, be it an anthropologist with surprisingly modern views on how white expansion has destroyed the cultures of indigenous peoples, or an amusing anecdote that springs up when Jay stumbles into someone else’s campfire. All these little diversions seem to have a running theme of undermining the idyllic heroism that we view the frontier days with, of people questing across great distances for glory and justice. At the end of the day, though, these were all just people, many of whom died needlessly in a Hobbesian world where the fastest bullet was the one that ensured survival.
And this is a well-reasoned point to make, but the film does feel a bit blunt in its symbolism at times. The nihilism is this film’s raison d’etre, but that understandably leaves the film feeling a little bit hollow in some of its less engaging scenes. As I implied, this film is actually fairly light on character, which is particularly disheartening given Fassbender’s talents as an actor. This leaves the narrative as little more than a vessel for a modern observation of Western tropes, but because the film doesn’t aspire to be much more than that, I don’t find that I minded it too much.
The whole experience becomes cathartic by the final scene, though, as the various vignettes tie together into a climax that is simultaneously a unifying thesis of the film and a great homage to the gunslinging action of Western’s past. Though not a perfect film, I definitely found Slow West to be a satisfying one. If you have an extra eighty minutes, this is a good way to fill them.
What’s your favorite Michael Fassbender role? Share yours in the comments below.