A Scottish teen named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is on a quest to find and rescue his One True Love, a girl named Rose (Caren Pistorius) who recently fled Scotland with her father (Rory McCann). Along the way, Jay gets "rescued" by a bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who demands Jay give him one hundred dollars in return for Silas escorting him safely to wherever it is he's going. Since Silas goes around calmly shooting people, Jay decides to agree. Although the audience soon learns that Silas intends to use Jay to collect a reward on Rose and her father, Jay remains blissfully unaware of this for most of the movie.
During his journey, Jay encounter a series of unusual people. Black musicians who converse with Jay in French. Silent natives slowly abandoning their burned village. A German anthropologist who is studying the end of the Native American way of life. Desperate immigrants.
And also other bounty hunters, one dressed as a minister and the other wearing a gigantic fur coat and leading a ragtag gang. The latter is aptly named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), and he plays an increasingly important role as the story progresses.
Side note: I love that there are several instances here of the sound of words giving them more meaning. Payne's name sounds like "pain." If you say the title out loud, sounds like "slowest." The film has a slow, leisurely pace, and Jay is also not the fastest brain in the west. So many layers!
Anyway, Payne is also seeking to collect the reward on Rose and her father. This makes Payne the primary antagonist for the story, though he's not any more of a Bad Guy than Silas, and in some ways, he's a better one at first. Payne and his gang follow Silas and Jay for a while, and when Payne eventually invites himself over to their camp to share cigars and absinthe (to emphasize the movie's surreality?), things get really interesting. We learn that he and Silas know each other, and know each other well. Silas is angry and surly, and very mistrustful. Payne is overly friendly, sniffing around for clues in a way that tells us he knows Jay is going to lead him straight to Rose and that reward.
We never learn what exactly went wrong between Silas and Payne previously -- Silas later says that he had joined Payne's gang when he was about Jay's age, and that when he left, he was lucky to do so with his life. That's all.
We get a some tight close-ups of Silas during this scene, and he looks alternately angry, wary, worried, pained, and even a little bit wistful. When Payne arrives, he interrupts Silas giving Jay his very first shave and a large dose of advice about how life works, a sort of father-and-son moment, and I feel like this points to Silas and Payne once having had a similar relationship. Only something very bad happened that turned Silas against Payne, but not Payne against Silas. Payne really, really wants Silas to come back to him and his gang, but Silas insists he's nothing like Payne and won't be persuaded.
It's Payne's presence that moves Silas to finally tell Jay that Rose and her father have prices on their heads. From then on, it's just a question of who will find Rose first.
The film moves at a deceptively languid pace, seeming to drift from one experience to the next, but inexorably pulled toward a brutal climax.
The first time I watched this, I assumed that Jay was the protagonist. The story begins with a voice-over explaining who Jay is, why he is here, and whom he seeks. We spend a whole seven minutes with Jay before Silas ever arrives. It's Jay who's on the journey to rescue Rose, after all. His quest to help the girl he loves is what drives the story. Or so I thought.
But the more I pondered the story, the more I realized that no, Jay is not the protagonist. Silas is.
Silas has a beautiful character arc, going from a jaded and closed-off loner to a father figure for Jay, to a man willing to die to save strangers, to a man willing to live a life of responsibility. All conveyed with a minimum of words, as he is one of the most laconic gents to grace the screen since Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.
We all know Hamlette has a deep and abiding fondness for laconic gents. This movie is a pretty major reason why I've become a Michael Fassbender fan. In fact, so far, Silas is my favorite Fassbender role -- yes, even over his turn as Mr. Rochester!
(If you're worried about SPOILERS about the ending, you should probably QUIT READING right here. Or skip to the last paragraph if you're wondering about content.)
Jay, on the other hand, has no character arc. He starts out sweet and naive and loyal, and he ends that way too. He fulfills his purpose of protecting Rose and providing a new life for her, but he doesn't get to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Silas does. Silas, by growing out of selfishness into selflessness becomes the man who can provide for and take care of Rose. Rose never loved Jay, she told him so straight out, and they had no future together. They were too different, one a pragmatic survivor and the other a dreamy wanderer. Silas is also a pragmatic survivor, and although he and Rose don't share many meaningful scenes, the film makes it clear they are suited to each other. Jay doesn't get a happy ending, but Silas and Rose -- and the audience -- do. Silas ends the film by saying, "There is more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life." Not his physical existence, but the life he's now living. He's no longer alone, no longer steeped in violence.
I don't know why I didn't figure this out from the get-go, as it's Silas who narrates the story. His first words are, "I was drifting west when I picked up his trail." He was drifting west. He picked up the trail. He's the subject here, the protagonist. The journey is really Silas's. Jay is the means to an end, just not the end Silas originally intended.
Slow West was filmed in New Zealand, but is supposed to be set in Colorado Territory. If you've spent a lot of time watching Middle Earth movies, the topography will probably look distinctively NOT of the American West, but if you're willing to suspend a bit of that disbelief, it works.
It's beautiful, but it's not Colorado.
Sure makes me want to visit New Zealand, though!
Much of the movie is laden with hidden meanings, mysterious and sometimes down-right strange. It has a distinctively mythological flavor to it, Jay an otherworldly creature who draws odd happenings and people to himself. He has prescient dreams. Silas himself refers to Jay's survival as a miracle. Like The Lone Ranger (2013), this movie acknowledges that we have mythologized the Old West, and it seeks to accentuate that legend-making by not remaining strictly realistic.
When we first meet Jay, he is lying on his back in the dark, pretending to shoot at the stars. He spends the rest of the story doing the same -- pursuing an impossible dream like Don Quixote, setting off to rescue a damsel who is only in distress because of him, and leading more trouble her way without realizing it. Silas calls him "a jackrabbit in a den of wolves."
Yeah, I suppose it's not all that subtle, the whole idea of a man killed by the tree he was trying to chop down being like Jay who's going to be killed by the quest he's on. First time you watch it, though, you don't know for sure that's going to happen, and that makes it much more subtle.
Anyway, then there's Rose.
In flashbacks, we see her playing an odd, morbid game with Jay where he has to choose a way to die, and then she pretends to kill him that way. Shot by an arrow, shot with a gun, silly but dark kid stuff, and also foreshadowing the fact that she's going to be the cause of his death. Jay asks her if she loves him, and she says she only loves him like a brother, even though he's rich and important and she most definitely is not.
In the present, Rose lives in a nice little house with her father, where she's learning to make butter (sort of), getting interested in a sweet Native American named Kotori (Kalani Queypo), and spending a lot of time worrying that people will figure out who they are.
She might struggle with making butter, but she knows how to handle a rifle, and as soon as we meet her in her new home, I want desperately for her to survive. For a character with only a few scenes, she makes an indelible impression.
I keep thinking I'm about done with this post, and then I think of one more thing I have to say. Okay, last thing I'm going to discuss, honest!
Silas and Jay are always shown travelling from right to left. I'm assuming this is partly to show that they are travelling west, since we tend to look at maps with west to the left and east to the right.
However, as this excellent video points out, "in western culture, left to right indicates the progression of time," so movie makers have coded their films to use that, and we're used to movement from left to right in movies being used to "indicate time, progress, and normality," while movement from right to left "indicates moving back in time, abnormality, and regression." This would seem to point toward Silas returning to a previous state over the course of the film, going from the hardened, bitter, remorseless killer back to his earlier self, who was stable and helpful.
It could also be emphasizing that both Silas and Jay are abnormal, which I've discussed earlier -- Silas is a killer and a bounty hunter, a man who preys on Jay, abandons orphans, and plans to benefit from the misery of others the way we assume he has done before. Jay is otherworldly and naive to the point of childishness, which is also not normal. With a film as nuanced and layered as this, I have to assume the filmmakers were deliberately using directionality to influence our feelings toward these characters.
Is this movie family friendly? Nope. Lots of spattery violence. Also some bad language, a bit of mild innuendo (Silas concludes that Jay has not yet "bedded" Rose), and some non-sexual nudity (a dead man's naked rear). Not a film for kids or the squeamish!