Michael Fassbender is a welcome addition to any film marque – independent or otherwise. From the jaguar-like way he carries himself to the silky, chop salad baritone of his voice, his dangerous presence is inimitable and essential (even through a paper-machie helmet.) Like the great Western heroes of lore, he saunters on spurs, a meaty cigar never far from his tobacco-stained mouth. He’s a gunslinger even when he’s not armed. In Slow West though, he is. He’s very armed, and deadly cool.
John McKean‘s tale takes us back to the end of the age of the gunslinger. As one of these menacing bounty hunters claim, “It’s always the hardest folk who die out last” but all the pistol-whipping, bullet-snapping, train-robbing gumption in the world can’t stop evolution in its tracks. Making good on that claim, McKean shows a Western USA on the tipping point of monumental change though still characterized by the loose moral code of the ruffian and the accompanying piles of bodies. Promises of untold personal fortune have turned tail towards Hearstian corporations as the native American presence is steadily snuffed out by the heels of unchecked expansionism. Even the little houses on the prairies can only remain isolated for so long.
You can see the sea change of Wild Wild West to Moderately Wild West in the up-to-this-point survival of young, confident aristocrat, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who’s traveled from Europe in hopes of rescuing a dame. McKean cleverly doesn’t legitimize Jay’s love-as-manifest-destiny, rather casts it in the same dubious light as pioneers leaving all to strike west for gold. From the moment Cavendish falls in Silas’ (Fassbender) line of sight, he’s a walking opportunity. Tendering his service as a chaperone, Silas agrees to get the out-of-his-depths Jay to his final destination, though for reasons that go beyond the paycheck.
Jay soon learns that the romanticism of his guidebook (“Ho! To the West!!”) isn’t reflected in the landscapes he’s trekking through. The west is no picnic, as helping after helping of quick-draw justice help him realize. From the get go, Jay and Silas encounter desperate people in desperate corners, all hedged with a sense of witty irony. As a husband-wife duo rob a storefront, the shop owner contents that they won’t be able to spend the money anywhere but here since he’s the only shop in a 100 mile radius. McKean frequently deviates from the hard Western course by hedging in a healthy serving of gallow’s humor like this. His offbeat comedy peaks when a downed man gets a jar labeled “Salt” shot out above him. The spice spills in the yawn of his wound. The crowd erupts.
This offbeat sense of ironic humor is at times brilliantly articulated, subtly adding a new element to an aged genre. It takes what should have been with A Million Days to Die in the West to exacting levels; draining the slapstick and adds a fur-coating wielding, slow-drawling Ben Mendelsohn to occasionally help cut things to a psycho-serious tone.
Robbie Ryan‘s cinematography adds a ton to the picture as well. His painterly touch is frequently stunning, becoming a star of the show in and of itself and offering a scattering of completely entrancing casts into the landscape. To get a picture of his work, picture the majesty of the Great Plains in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves sifted through Paul Thomas Anderson’s sun scorched, dour photography of There Will Be Blood. Mix in bits of out-of-left-field storms of violence reminiscent of the Coen Bros and a matching thinking man’s wit and you have this unexpected, generously ironic Western delicacy.