Slow West (2015), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015, stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as 16-year-old Jay Cavendish, the son of Scottish aristocrats on a romantic (and foolhardy) journey to find the girl he loves on the 19th century American frontier, and Michael Fassbender as bounty hunter Silas who volunteers to be the boy’s guide and bodyguard… for a price, of course.
The tone of the film, a darkly absurdist frontier odyssey, recalls both the films of the Coen Brother and the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Fassbender’s hardbitten gunman has a bemused fatality about him, a man who expects every stranger in this gorgeous and savage wilderness to be a killer by nature or desperation. He’s usually right. Jay takes the more romantic view of the new world, a place of opportunity and new beginnings, and his openness and trust backfires constantly. Silas saves him from a pair of jayhawkers in the first scene (Jay puts his faith in their Union uniforms, despite the fact that the war is long over) and keeps saving him from his best instincts.
The title should prepare audiences for something odd and measured, a meandering, episodic film of unexpected encounters set against the majestic landscape of the Colorado frontier (which is actually New Zealand standing in for America): a Swedish couple turned unlikely outlaw robbers, an anthropologist chronicling American Indian culture in anticipation of its extinction who apparently funds his work by robbing travelers, and a rival bounty hunter played by Ben Mendelsohn with a feral charisma. It turns out both he and Silas are after the same thing—Rose (Caren Pistorius), the object of Jay’s desire, and her father have bounties on their heads and Silas is counting on Jay to lead him to a payday. The frontier is no place for romantics, but Jay may have been right about second chances. It’s just a matter of surviving long enough to take it. John Maclean writes and directs with a loping, lazy pace.