“He loved you with all his heart.”
“His heart was in the wrong place.”
“His spirit was true.”
Oh how I LOVE a great gut-punching ending.
Slow West is a 2015 western drama written and directed by Englishman John Maclean. Jay Cavendish, played by Kodi-Smit McPhee, is a Scottish immigrant to the 19th century American frontier. His sole reason for venturing to the unknown is to search for the women he loves. Through his journey West, he meets a series of characters, most notably his companion Silas Selleck, played by Michael Fassbender.
From the start, it’s obvious that Jay is naïve in his search for paramour. He is trying to traverse the Native American lands alone with the aid of a “how-to” book and a series lucky passer-by moments. It’s not till Silas comes along that we trust Jay can make it another day. However, just moments later at a trading depot, Silas’ true intentions are revealed. He is seeking out Rose Ross for bounty, and Rose is who Jay crossed the Atlantic Ocean for.
Their horse riding takes the pair into a series of unfortunate trials. The trade depot ends up being a massive personality highlighter; Silas is able to play it cool with a gun in his face, and the audience can double-down on Jay’s emotional depth, whether that be a weakness or strength. Then Jay gets taught a nasty lesson in trust when he meets a fellow European traveler by the name of Werner.
An added layer of depth to Silas comes when Payne joins the fray. Played by the always wonderfully malevolent Ben Mendelsohn, Payne is the leader of a gang of bounty hunters. His entourage is following Silas, a former member of their clique, knowing that Jay is leading them all to Rose and her partner.
The second best scene of the movie comes as a result of Jay experiencing absinthe for the first time comes courtesy of Payne. The mob leader is attempting to get Silas drunk to spill the beans as to where Rose is, but Silas doesn’t relent. Jay, after having a take a leak, wanders over to the wrong camp and sits down with the group of killers. One of the crew tells a tale highlighting how the young crave the wanted posters, while the old still look for the anonymity. There is something fantastic about a simple story told in an entertaining way…much like Slow West as a whole.
Then there is final scene. The final shootout. Silas and Jay find Rose’s location, and their arrival is bookmarked by violence. Silas, after having tricked Jay and tying him to a tree, inserts himself in the crossfire without knowing it was commencing. Soon after his arrival at Rose’s door, Payne’s crew comes spilling out of the forest with only the monetary bounty on his mind.
The final climax plays with simplicity. This isn’t an extravagant house Rose is held up in, rather it’s like a Little House on the Prairie type of paradise. Secluded in a giant field, surrounded by nothing but green, it allows for some phenomenal individual shots. For example; a priestly hitman is laid to rest in grains and the over-the-head viewpoint of his body leaving an imprint in the tall swaying grain is *kiss-your-fingertips* good.
The best part of Slow West is the end. It shows idealism is a death sentence in this time. Even if your heart is on an admirable journey, it doesn’t mean it’s going to get there in one piece. That is what happens to Jay.
If you don’t want to know the exact ending, then avoid the next couple paragraphs, because I can’t help but talk about it.
Rose shoots Jay. Rose shoots Jay and doesn’t even flinch. Rose shoots Jay and doesn’t even realize who he is.
Heartbreaking. Even for a character as naïve Jay is, seeing his literal life-quest come to an abrupt halt by way of a bullet from his long-lost one-sided love is crushing. He comes rushing in to try and save the day, but instead is a left over consequence of the life Rose chose to lead when she arrived West.
A life of purpose is not enough in the West. Idealism is not ground to survive upon. Jay learns that lesson, and so does the audience. It’s harrowing, shocking and a perfect ending for the character and tone of Slow West.
All the acting in Slow West is above the mark. Fassbender is exceptionally strong as Silas; you give Fassbender a character with few lines, an air of mystery and self-doubt, and a pliable moral compass, then you have yourself a winner. His introduction and undressing of Jay sets the tone for his minimalist ideals. What’s most interesting about Silas is his willingness to let Jay learn some harsh lessons on his own, while also protecting him from the harshest of realities. Silas lets Jay get tricked, robbed and humiliated, but he doesn’t want him to experience intangible heartbreak.
Credit for Silas and this story go to its writer and director, Mr. John Maclean. But oh Mr. Maclean, where have you gone?? Slow West was the first and only major motion picture! Maclean writes about the romance of the unknown west like a veteran, and he is able to combine it with differing types of subtle humor so not to overbear you.
Major credit to The Guardian’s film critic Graeme Virtue, who really hones Slow West done well saying it “exists in a movie prairie somewhere between the Coen brothers’ ice-cold No Country For Old Men and their mud-spattered remake of True Grit.”
Really this is one of the best westerns in modern times. On my personal excel list, Slow West ranks among my all-time favorites; Tombstone, 3:10 To Yuma, Djanjo Unchained, Unforgiven and Hostiles. It’s a superb story that’s worth all its reverence.
Stanko Rating: A-