Slow West (***) aims for poignant, misses by that much

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Slow West – 2016

Written and Directed by John Maclean
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann

There is a scene early on in Slow West where young Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) has gotten a rude awakening about his journey West through America from newly joined fellow traveler Silas Selleck (Fassbender). Having just seen what appear to be Army officers run down and attempt to kill a Native American, Jay is astonished when Selleck kills the leader with no remorse. When Cavendish questions Silas about the fact that he was in uniform, he discovers that not everyone in uniform is an officer. Stunned, he numbly accepts Sellecks offer to take him the rest of the way to where he is going. He will take payment half now, half later. Okay. And, nervously, we’re off.

Where Jay is going is in pursuit of his lost true love, Rose (Pistorius), who left Scotland with her father for America, trying to outrun the law. Why will be obvious in no time. And so too will be many other things.

Silas is a man tortured and quite literally followed by his past, in the form of Payne (Mendelsohn) and his gang. They all seek the same thing. Give you one guess who’s gonna get it.

At first, things are awkward between the well-seasoned American traveler and his British counterpart. Jay has a soft heart, a trusting nature and he comes in peace: all things that should have him dead long before he ever met up with Selleck. To further prove a point, Selleck admonishes Cavendish when they start out because he tries to ride side by side with the American. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars know that Sand People ride in single file to hide their numbers. So, too, should Jay and Silas.

A few days later, once the two wake up literally in the middle of a stream in circumstances too dumb to describe, Selleck congratulates Jay on his inventiveness in creating a clothes line between their two horses, once more side by side. Why couldn’t they have the clothes line in single file? Because Maclean chose to forget his earlier point while trying to create the event.

Slow West pictures itself as a vessel to explain that all men, rough and soft alike, have a tender heart when they think for more than a few beats. Sure, we need to make tough decisions, but in the end, travelling across the world on an indefinite maybe makes one noble and pure of heart.

Fassbender’s character is confusing, primarily because I am not sure that the actor nor the writer director know how to portray him. Is he a wise man who will get the best of a situation were he is unarmed, or is he foolish enough to drink so much that he loses everything? The moment his guard should be up, his defenses are let down, because, darn it, his old gang just won’t leave him alone.

As the tender and true hearted Cavendish, Smit-McPhee fares better. He only has to approach the world in the manner of someone who doesn’t come close to understanding what makes men bleed. He’s Manny from Modern Family in an old west setting.

Mendelsohn has the easy job of playing the opportunist with no heart. This is something he has done before,  and better. He’s still good. I would like to see what Tarantino could do with him, though.

If one looks past the silliness of the story and takes a closer look at the heart, it’s not a bad film. It’s clear what Maclean wants to do, even if he doesn’t know how to do it and stay within the bounds of a consistent story. For now, it is nice that he has the opportunity to hone his skill with so much talent around.

(*** out of *****)

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