John Maclean’s Slow West is a photogenic trifle about a Scottish teen traveling through the rugged, dangerous terrain of frontier America in 1870 looking for his runaway love and her father. It begins with a “once upon a time,” which instantly gives Maclean’s western the secret air of a fairy tale. Indeed, as Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lies on his back and stares at the stars, which twinkle as he pretends to shoot them with his gun, there’s a sense of him as a little prince who’s left the safety of some far-off land in search of adventure, or to fulfill some fabulously preordained destiny.
Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who narrates Jay’s conventional story with the sort of regard that suggests he thinks it will be of value to someone in the future other than himself, meets him deep in Colorado and becomes the young man’s protector against the elements and wolves who appear to them in sheep’s clothing—literally so in the case of one particularly colorful bounty hunter, Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s a fable that makes the unexceptional appear slightly off-kilter through fussy artifice, and programmatically marches toward a bloody climax whose only true, if scarcely resplendent, surprise is its denial of a conventional happily ever after.
“A jack rabbit in a den of wolves” is how Silas describes Jay, convincing him that he’s in need of chaperoning, and together they march west toward wherever it is that Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) and her father, John (Rory McCann), are holed up. Oblivious to Jay, there’s a bounty on the father and daughter’s heads, and as such Slow West flirts with the possibility that Silas may not just be protecting the teen from the bounty hunters on their trail, but also using him to get to Rose and John himself. Of course, that Silas’s charisma is so unmistakable, and that he redraws a line in the sand between himself and the archly seedy Payne at one weirdly and strikingly erotic point, it’s evident where the rouge Irishman’s loyalties lie. Meaning that the film’s only real suspense comes from whether or not Jay will learn of the price tag for Rose and John’s capture, and how they came to reach this remote American frontier. The details of the latter revelation suggest an homage to the second act of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet, only Maclean doesn’t mine the unraveling of the foundation of a criminal act for a necessary sense of poignancy or desperation. The film’s hopscotching into the removed past, or into Jay’s dreams, simply exudes the inert air of peripheral contextualizing.
The relationship between time and location is of less interest to Maclean than the proximity between objects in his frame, as in a shot of a hungry Jay approaching a mushroom that posits the teen as some freakish figure sprung from Lewis Carrol’s imagination. Jed Kurzel’s score, so rich in elegantly plucked strings, and distracting in its similarities to “Yumeji’s Theme” from In the Mood for Love, dances throughout the soundtrack like the ants that scurry their way in, out, and around the barrel of a gun captured in grotesque close-up. Another shot frames Silas’s head in the foreground and Payne and his gang on horses atop a hill in the far background—a deep-focus technique that calls attention only to its own construction. Such fastidiously realized affectations pockmark Slow West as Jay and Silas meet colorful characters on their way toward Rose and John. As in a trio of Congolese musicians who sing a spiritual, and who Jay speaks to in French, and to no one’s surprise, for the sole purpose of conveying a jejune notion of love having no language. All of the film’s ruminations—on race, extinction, dreams, “the new world,” and romance—are tossed off in random fits, and they’re so perfectly complemented by Maclean’s posh artistry that Maclean ensures that no sense of frisson is ever aroused.
Slow West suggests a funhouse perversion of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. It makes light of death and growth in the American frontier, greed and consciousness, and the white man’s encroachment. Shocks to the body and consciousness are rendered as punchlines: A bloody shootout at a rest stop ends with the revelation of two children being orphaned by the carnage, and three Native Americans comically thwart themselves in their attempt to steal Jay and Silas’s horses. A death that should be poignant is turned into a jarring gag that illustrates the adage of rubbing salt on an open wound. It may be unfair to want Maclean’s film to adhere to the cinematic convention of interpreting life in the American frontier as phantasmagoria, but Slow West’s aesthetics lack even for the moral exultations that Quentin Tarantino’s cartoonish exaggerations in Django Unchained ultimately make room for. It may not flaunt the unearned sense of self-seriousness of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but as it builds toward its climax, of bodies rising and falling in synchronicity to the dance of bullets overhead, and of blood perfectly splattering across walls, it still only suggests a pageantry of pseudo-art poses, a self-consciously cool reorientation of the western as silly symphony.