Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Slow West (2015)

Young Scottish upper-class guy Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way westward through an Old West in its final stages. So there are still natives being massacred, and outlaws roaming, but the end of the old ways, and what we might for better or worse call the dawn of US civilization, is in sight. Jay’s looking for Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), the woman he loves (even though it becomes pretty clear rather quickly she doesn’t love him that way), who has fled to America with her father after they accidentally killed Jay’s uncle in what was more a comedy of errors than murder.

Fortunately for Jay, whose mixture of mildness of manner, naivety and optimistic kindness is not fit for survival in the place and time he’s wandering through (one is a bit surprised he survived even Scotland until now), he encounters outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). For a bit of money, Silas promises to lead Jay to Rose safely. Unfortunately, the outlaw isn’t quite honest with Jay, for he knows about a bounty placed on the heads of Rose and her father all the remaining outlaws and bounty hunters of the area (the difference is fluid) are itching to cash in. So, perhaps, he’s just using Jay to find Rose. That, however, along with the question of Rose actually wanting or needing to be found or rescued by Jay, is something that’ll only come up after a slow trail through the surreal cruelty and cruel surreality of the West and the people dwelling there.

I am generally very, very suspicious of artists with talent and a career in one type of art moving onto a completely different one, so I did go into former Beta Band member John Maclean’s first full feature film with an undignified degree of scepticism for someone whose main wish when approaching movies is to actually enjoy them. As always when I use this kind of intro in a write-up, I was wrong, wrong, oh so very wrong, and can happily report that Maclean is quite the director. In fact, Slow West just might be the best surreal – or at least non-naturalistic - European art house Western I’ve seen in a long time, moving from one strange yet meaningful encounter to the next with unhurried grace and style, as well as with a methodical approach to letting even its strangest moments carry meaning for its characters and its world.

The film’s West, as in many a European Western, is a state of mind, and a place you really don’t want to get your head into (nor the other way round), turning promises of freedom and new beginnings into lies carried by the rule of cruelty, a place without any protection from the grim humour of the universe or the meanest parts of the human spirit. Well, actually, it’s very much like I imagine Los Angeles to be now, which is only fitting, given that city’s location. But I digress. On the other hand, I don’t believe this is meant to be any kind of deconstructive Western, or indeed a film very much interested in talking about the genre in which it is situated in a meta way; it’s more taking an approach where you use what you need and find interesting and useful about a time and place and genre, and discard the rest without a second thought.

Unlike many Western of the past (the small yet powerful bunch of contemporary films of the genre pool made in the last few years is quite different there), Slow West does take pains to paint its West as a place not populated exclusively by white men, so, even though our nominal heroes are indeed pretty white and male, there’s more than room for everyone else too, with Native Americans, people who are clearly the immigrants all Americans were, and so forth, and so on, shown in all the places popular culture has so often denied them. There’s nothing showy about this approach here: Maclean doesn’t seem out to prove a point, but only does what is natural and true. And really, it’s also a nice opportunity to have three Congolese gentlemen sing a love song (as universal as death, Jay knows), which feels more surreal than it actually is thanks to one’s expectations of what the West was. Ironically, it’s also probably an absolutely realistic scene, which might tell us something about how we decide what is real and what not.

Maclean does something similar with the relationship of Rose and Jay, not actually telling a a story of a guy saving a girl yet also not just going on a rant about how evil and paternalistic this would. The film’s criticism is more polite, more compassionate, and also quite a bit sadder than that.

So, yeah, it’s quite the film.

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