“Slow West” celebrates the classic American Western in a modern take
One of the perks of having a film festival in town is the opportunity to see certain films first. While the goal of the Chattanooga Film Festival is not necessarily to have exclusive premieres, there is a genuine sort of pleasure at seeing articles appear online praising a film for its cutting-edge approach several months after we saw it for the first time in theaters.
It’s almost as if Chattanooga audiences were collaboratively involved in whatever it was that made the film so great. Of course, a drawback to the film festival experience is that there is often only one chance to see something great—if you miss that showing, you have to wait to see the best films with the rest of the plebeians.
Due to my desire to volunteer at the festival this year, I missed several of the films I’d hoped to see, relegating myself to the unwashed masses of most American filmgoers. But this week, one of those films found its way back into our viewing area through the wonders of Video on Demand.
“Slow West,” winner of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, can be found in a variety of locations online and through cable, and in a summer chock-full of sentimental children’s movies and tired reboots, it is a film worth well worth spending an evening alone with.
The western is a timeless American classic, a genre that belongs wholeheartedly to a population of heroes and outlaws. The cultural identity and political ideologies of entire generations are linked with the popular romantic notions found in these movies. Our rabid defense of gun ownership and our need for an isolationist self-sufficiency have their roots in the films of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. A representative sample of core American values can be found in the wide shots of Monument Valley.
“Slow West” is a collection of these ideas. It has the feel of a short story; at 84 minutes, it is barely feature length, and the tale is concise and expertly told. A young man from Scotland, hailing from a family of some distinction, searches for his lost love after an accident sets her adrift in the American West with her father.
An outlaw follows the young man towards reward and unlikely redemption. Danger lurks along the way in the faces of bad men. “Slow West” is not breaking rules or redefining a genre. It is slow burn of staggering beauty and effective performances. If anything, the film is a collection of tropes, a powerful potpourri of western imagery and theme.
More important than the story, however, is the uncompromising cinematography. “Slow West” is a beautiful film. Newcomer John Mclean, like most of his predecessors, owes much of this to the stunning settings found in the American West. “Slow West” is a film of landscapes. The location scouting for the film is exceptional. It’s nice to know that these wild places still exist, somewhere outside crowded suburbs and shopping centers.
Of the performances, I can say the actors know their characters, such as they are. The film is populated with archetypes rather than well-rounded people, as it seems the filmmakers are more interested in exploring the concept of the western rather than the minds of the characters themselves.
Jay (Kodi Smit McPhee) is wide-eyed and wondering, the innocent driven by loving naivety and followed by cynical survivalists. Silas (Michael Fassbender) is carved from the experience of evil and is suitably myopic. The two don’t necessarily play off each other as much as inhabit opposing viewpoints. There is no discussion or compromise, just a steady gait towards an obvious conclusion.
“Slow West” is an exercise in celebration. The filmmakers have a genuine love for this genre, but are not really interested in exploring its boundaries. Instead, the film makes an effort to re-create the emotions and themes common across the type. “Slow West” doesn’t ask or answer any questions. Instead, it exists to draw attention to the beauty of these types of films.
Filmmaking grew up in the West. It cut its teeth on the dry, cracked dust of the desert and flourished under its unrelenting high noon. What better genre for a first time filmmaker to begin his journey? Westerns are necessarily cinematic, because cinema was born there. “Slow West” is a film to drink in.