Westerns don't get the love they deserve, but recently there's been a surge of indie westerns popping up, and it seems every year one or two of the major film studios releases a reboot or adaptation of an old western. Remember 3:10 to Yuma? True Grit? The upcoming Denzel Washington flick The Magnificent Seven? Slow West falls in the first category, a film that no major studio would touch with a ten-foot Brad Pitt because it lacks commercial appeal. Needless to say, the film's opening credits take two hours* to complete, just to list all the companies and countries involved in its creation.
Cinematic newcomer John Maclean (not to be confused with John McClane) writes and directs his first feature, about a naive young man Jay (played by sub-humanoid Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travels from Ireland into the American west, filled with savage Natives and ruthless outlaws, in order to meet up with his true love. He meets laconic badass Silas (Michael Fassbender) who agrees to protect him for that sweet green. But it turns out that Jay's love interest and her father are actually wanted outlaws and Jay is unknowingly leading Fassbender to them, where he will presumably collect on the bounty.
That's where the movie should have ended. If the movie was just the first act, it would have been really fun and interesting. This is as indie as it comes; low-fi production values, quirky Nick Cave-type music, and a cast of unknown up-and-comers.
The movie focuses on subtlety, using Dead Man's entire playbook, but making it different by shooting it in color. Like most road pictures, West is full of character-driven, but ultimately pointless, scenes. There are some folks in the middle of the plains playing music. Jay stops and speaks to them in French. So there are French people playing music in the middle of nowhere and Jay can speak French. This does not play out later in the movie and has no point. This scene cost money to shoot, and several companies had to pay for it. Some directors can get away with it. No Country for Old Men, another classic in the modern western genre, consists mostly of these weird scenes. But that's the Coen brothers. They can get away with it.
It's not surprising that Slow West is Maclean's debut. What is surprising is that he got Michael Fassbender interested in his slow, boring script. This is an actor who made $75 million in ONE YEAR. He could literally make any movie he wants (note to self: send Fassbender my scripts). Perhaps Fassbender and the producing team saw something in the script or in Maclean that I obviously didn't, which is how so many films get made, but unfortunately, how they become lousy as well.
West isn't lousy though, let me be clear. There is an artistic merit to the film and the performances are top-notch (no matter how alien Kodi Smit-Mcphee looks). Fassbender is so badass my Xbox almost caught on fire when I watched it. But that's about it. For a movie that had a cool trailer, the experience was pretty vanilla. It's a slow, empty western that ends in a shoot-out. It's a well done, but entirely unoriginal movie. If age is no factor in how you pick your movies, then there are literally hundreds of westerns to watch before this one. One the other hand, West clocks in under ninety minutes, so there's not much to risk in watching it. But that might be a hindrance as well; there are some interesting scenes and concepts to the story, like Fassbender's character's backstory, but the movie has been edited to the bone, so much so that we don't stay with anyone story or thought for too long.
Maybe it was just me. But that's the beauty of a review. It's entirely up to me. This one was lame because it was so ordinary. It was the C student of modern indie westerns. But the critics think I'm wrong, that I missed some deeper meaning and that this is a really deep movie. Maybe. Maybe that's what Fassbender saw in it. But I won't see it again.
*I'm kidding, you doof