In Slow West, a young Scottish nobleman named Jay Cavendish travels to America to find his lost love (in his mind, at least), a commoner named Rose. The story starts in Colorado, where a tough guy named Silas (Michael Fassbender in Eastwood mode) basically strong-arms Jay into hiring him as a guide/bodyguard. There’s an impression that Silas knows who Jay is, so at first I assumed that he was hired by the Cavendish family to keep Jay safe. It’s soon revealed that he’s actually a bounty hunter who plans to use Jay to find Rose and her father, who have a bounty on their heads due to the incident that caused them to leave Scotland in the first place.
Plot wise, Slow West almost plays out like a picaresque. I think it’s intentional, but it might just be weak storytelling failing upward. The movie provides just enough plot to form a coherent story, but the vast majority of the screen time is spent on seemingly random encounters that don’t really have anything to do with the plot or reveal anything about the characters or their relationship with one another. The shallow characters and disconnectedness of scenes gives the whole thing a sort of dreamlike quality that’s enhanced by great visuals. In addition to the expected sweeping Western vistas, most of the characters have a look that’s very evocative. The effect is similar to the character design in Fury Road: even though the movie doesn’t tell us much about the characters, they look so cool we assume there’s something to them.
For the first 60 or 70 minutes of Slow West’s 80-something minute runtime, I was mostly ambivalent. It was pretty and there were some good scenes and it was mostly enjoyable, but I honestly couldn’t decide whether it was going anywhere. At times it seemed like it could easily be the kind of movie Charlie Kaufman’s imaginary brother in Adaptation would write, full of cool stuff but without anything really holding it together. At other times it seemed about to veer into obnoxiously pretentious territory at any moment. It never does either, and for me the last 15 minutes or so is what kind of brought it all together and won me over. I’ve got a feeling that the same part of the film had the exact opposite effect on some others.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the movie and I think I enjoyed it as it was intended to be enjoyed. Whether or not the filmmakers and I were on the same page kind of comes down to one visual metaphor near the end of the movie. If they thought it was clever and subtle and deep and meaningful, whoever came up with it was a moron. If it was so heavy-handed and trite because it was intended as a gag, I like what they did there. Even though there weren’t a lot of other people in the theater laughing when I saw the movie, I’m going to err on the side of optimism and assume I got the (intentional) joke.
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