Slow West: the New World through the eyes of a young man in love
by Vittoria Scarpa
- The debut film of Scottish director John Maclean is an atypical western that revolves around a teenager and his epic quest to find the love of his life
The West seen through the eyes of a young man in love is bound to appear slow. Totally enraptured, with sweet memories in his mind and his head in the clouds, Jay heads to Colorado, leaving his distant Scotland to find his beloved Rose, on horseback, a reckless yet calm and confident sixteen year-old. Then a gruff bounty hunter by the name of Silas, who appears out of the blue in the forest, brings him back down to Earth: "If you go on alone, you’ll be dead before dawn". And so, in exchange for a small fee, Silas offers Jay protection. It’s 1870, and Jay is played by the dreamy Kodi Smit-McPhee (nominated for best young actor at the 2010 Critics Choice awards for Let Me In [+see also:
film profile], who has also been in The Congress [+see also:
film profile] and Apes Revolution, among others), whilst Silas is brought to life by the brilliant Michael Fassbender, recently acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Macbeth [+see also:
film profile]. The setting for their encounter is the violent, insidious and at times surreal North American Far West of Scottish director John Maclean’s fascinating debut feature film Slow West [+see also:
interview: John Maclean
film profile], which was awarded the Jury Grand Prize at Sundance in 2015.
Jay and Silas: idealism, love and hope on the one hand; materialism, solitude and cynicism on the other. Along their way they come across fleeing native Americans, federal forces, African slaves, European anthropologists, cowboys, tramps, children and more, all of whom are framed by a landscape as breathtaking as it is threatening, where the innocent dream of a new world is accompanied by brutality and subjugation, and everyone seems interested in only one thing: money. Everyone, that is, except Jay: in quick flashbacks, we are shown the happy times he spent with Rose (Caren Pistorius). Theirs was a relationship that was not to be, doomed to failure, he being a member of the aristocracy, she the daughter of peasant farmers, an unrequited love which makes Jay’s happiness and feelings all the more epic. Over the course of the film, we discover that our young lover is not the only one hot on the heels of the beautiful ‘girl with a gun’: there’s a juicy bounty on the head of the young girl, and in the West – although our romantic hero has no way of knowing it – it’s better to trust no one.
It is an atypical western that is brought to us by this talented Scottish director, who, back in 2011, rose to fame for his short film Pitch Black Heist (again starring Fassbender), which received a BAFTA award. It’s a sort of coming-of-age western: the driving forces of the story are a lanky, doe-eyed teenager from a family of good standing – who is basically a fish out of water in the wild Colorado of the late nineteenth century – and his incorruptible and hopeless dream of love. Everything else, as far as the boy is concerned, is of secondary importance. "There’s more to life than simply surviving", Maclean, who also wrote the script, has him say. "Yes, there’s death", replies the disillusioned Silas. The two characters are as different as night and day, but each, even at the cost of multiple lives, will have something to learn from the other.