The film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish, a young Scottish boy taken under the wing of desperado Silas Selleck (Fassbender) while searching for the love of his life, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Rose was forced to flee to the Colorado territory with her father (Rory McCann) after an accident in Scotland left a bounty on their heads – a bounty attracting a gang of outlaws to Colorado as well, led by the thrillingly sinister Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
“Slow West” is technically a Western, but the film seems more concerned with the action of heading west than the place itself. It’s a coming-of-age story for its main character and at every turn, iconic Western tropes are introduced and quickly discarded.
Silas takes Jay under his wing in the same vein as many a hardened veteran has looked after a wide-eyed newcomer in classic Westerns. However, while Silas protects Jay after gaining affection for the naïve Scot, he is unable – and truthfully, barely tries – to protect his innocence. Early in the movie Jay must confront the brutality of the frontier head-on after he and Silas find themselves in the wrong general store at the wrong time.
The movie also has sense of fantasy and the surreal that seems foreign to the genre. It is noteworthy that the movie was shot in New Zealand rather than America because the characters move through the country as if traversing a fantasyland à la “The Lord of the Rings” – complete with a quasi-mystical forest that the superstitious outlaws steer clear of entering.
The movie is a literal dream for Jay, who against all odds and advice has put his life on the line for a girl who may not even return his romantic aspirations. His delusional journey becomes a meditation on the violent consequences of survival.
Maclean did not shoot the movie like a typical Western either. Utilizing a 1:66:1 aspect ratio, Maclean restrains from using extreme wide shots to show off the open New Zealand landscapes and instead stays tight with the characters, more eager to explore their headspace. The countryside remains ever present, but resigned to the background.
"Slow West" is a wild ride and ends with a riveting and superbly edited climax when all the characters finally meet. The blending of genres – fantasy, black comedy, and, of course, Western – creates a tone all its own. For a genre plagued by repetition, this film feels like no Western you’ve ever seen.