Go West, Young Man

Slow West (John Maclean, 2015)

This is the first Kiwi western.

It may be the first explicitly Darwinist western.

Although I suppose the first label doesn’t quite work on the model of spaghetti westerns. But the landscape, having been out of a job since the fifteenth episode of The Hobbit, gets to play Colorado and so forth. It does it well — and if I get the sense that the same mountains keep appearing, that is only appropriate since there is a dream feel to much of this.

I’ve not been a huge fan of the Western — I guess anxieties about the depiction of First Nations people hovered over them as I was becoming more aware of film and I don’t know enough history to unpick it. I probably need to know more about the American Civil War since so many westerns are set then or thenabouts. I’ve seen a pile of John Ford westerns (The Searchers will be key), Leone’s work, various Eastwoods (not, yet, I think, Unforgiven?) and some made since the turn of the century. The gaps are something I occasionally do something to fill. I don’t recall seeing The Missouri Breaks nor The Hired Hand. But the western is clearly part of the U.S. selfmythologising. There’s much written on it from a structuralist point of view — Sixguns and all that, antinomies, the outsider who expels himself from the society he saves…

So here we have Jay (Kodi Smit-McKee, from The Road), a young son of aristocracy, in search of his not really girlfriend, Rose (Carol Pistorius), on the run from Scotland for crimes that are not her fault. He’s a naïf. He barely needs to shave. And yet somehow — money, lots of it — he has gotten across the Atlantic and out into the West. When he runs into a Unionist officer and two men chasing a Native American, he also runs into Silas (Michael Fassbender) who agrees to help him find Rose.

For a fee.

And that suits Silas, because he wants to find Rose and her father. As indeed do a posse of bounty hunters.

We are offered a string of vignettes of the journey, which curiously lengthens its duration beyond its otherwise economical 84 minutes without out staying its welcome. The editing studiously maintains a right to left movement for our protagonists. We find a trading post, an anthropologist wanting to make his name from studying the native tribes, a group of Black musicians who speak French, a priest with a suspicious case and an old friend with a bottle of absinthe. We also see the skeleton of a pioneered killed by the tree he was chopping down.

Trust no one.

And there are flashbacks to Scotland and stories told around the campfire and meanwhile in Rose-land.

The hut whe she lives looks suspiciously clean even if new, and imported from Inglourious Basterds. Again, there’s something no quite real, as if Jay has conjured this up out of his romantic imagination. We are breaking the rules of narrated cinema — especially when we see a memory related by someone around a campfire that Silas isn’t at. The rules are broken as it veers between comic and tragic, an odd mix of Jarmusch, Coens and Anderson without being arch.

And we build to the generic imperative of High Noon.

There’s a shot at the end of The Searchers where we see out of the door of the house that the girl has been returned to, with Ethan (John Wayne) on the outside, leaving. There’s also a shot here, before a final montage, which rejects that kind of exclusion. The curious paradox of an ending which embraces a family unit being somehow radical — at least in generic terms. Evolution gives us survival of the fittest and Dawkins versions of this add selfish genes. Is there a place in that scheme for selflessness and charity and love? That would be the romantic ending. I think the truth here is murkier — put a foot wrong and you won’t survive. Survival is not a moral act.

This, a debut film from a Scottish musician, is definitely worth your time.

And in the summer that gave us Mad Max and not so feminist dinosaurs, I’d quite like to see Rose’s film.

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