Slow West is unlike any other Western I’ve seen. It tells the story of a Scottish boy named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travels to the American frontier in search of his love. A sketchy bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) allies with Jay for his own ulterior motives.
Slow West is structured as a series of near-vignettes connected by a simplistic narrative, and the structure is what makes it work. It allows the film to explore a variety of tones that can vary from a sincere romance between two teenagers to violent, Looney Tunes-esque slapstick without the tone shifts being jarring.
Slow West also plays with conventions in the Western genre. Instead of shootouts being drawn out and thrilling, they’re short and upsetting. Instead of Native Americans being dehumanized villains, the disturbing truth of the injustices committed against them is shown. The film falters, though, when it doesn’t play with conventions enough.
The relationship between Jay and Silas is one that’s been seen countless times in cinema. It’s the typical “gruff loner whose cold heart is thawed by an innocent companion” but Slow West does nothing new with it. In fact, this version of that relationship falls short, because the film’s vignette structure makes it difficult to get satisfactory character growth. So, when Silas starts caring, it feels more like a function of the plot rather than a natural development.
And while the film doesn’t demonize Native Americans, it still doesn’t do enough with them in comparison to their white counterparts. The one named Native American character, Kotori (Kalani Queypo), is more support for a prominent white character than a character in his own right.
Slow West is an odd but deeply enjoyable film. It’s gorgeously shot, offers great performances, and deserves to be seen just because it’s truly unique.