“He was an officer.”
“Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady. He ain’t soldier least no more … injun slayers.”
“Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady,” Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) tells his new mentee, Scottish 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Indeed, the first dialogue exchanged between the two in the new western, Slow West could serve as the film’s coda. Things are rarely what they seem, expectations do not often meet reality, and the stories we tell ourselves, whether about love, identity, or history, frequently obscure unpleasant truths.
Cavendish had travelled from “the cold shoulder of Scotland to the hot baking heart of America,” Selleck tells viewers in the movie’s first moments. Silas, as Filmspotting’s Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen pointed out, seems like a new era Eastwood, borrowing affectations, chewing on a cigarillo, and offering spare moments of wisdom to his young charge. Fassbender’s Silas calls Jay kid so much, “I thought I was in Unforgiven,” Kempenaar noted. True, but Fasssbender also channels Coen brothers characters like Miller Crossing’s noirish and morally ambiguous Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), exchanging 1920s lingo like “dangle” for the spare “drift.” As more than a few critics have suggested, Slow West feels like True Grit, Unforgiven, and perhaps even 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma swirled into a tight 82-minute film.
Director John Maclean fills his west with European immigrants on the lam, Native Americans on the retreat, and violence always on the horizon. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves two Swedish migrants who hold up a dinky general store in the middle of nowhere. After the pair unsuccessfully tries a five-finger discount, the gun comes out, and the female partner’s voice scrapes with the despair of a woman lost and hungry in an unfamiliar land. She knows one word: “MONEYYYYYYY!!!” The lawless West may be the hoariest old trope in the book, but Slow West gives a truer sense than most such films of a landscape full of strangers, where cunning and desperation were often the only things that stood between a stomach full of food or hot lead.
Indeed, Jay eventually absconds from Silas, believing his “chaperone” to be little more than a ne’er-do-well brute. He encounters an intellectual German immigrant, Werner, parked on the Plains, who wants to document the decline of Native American culture as it is either destroyed by American encroachment or pummeled by Western Christianity. “This is a new world for us … and for them,” he tells Jay as the two new European arrivals share biscuits over an open fire. Of course, intellectual discourse hardly makes a man trustworthy, as Jay soon discovers.
Slow West never shies away from tragedy of western expansion for the west’s native populations. Jay travels across Indian burial grounds and razed villages. Even the film’s ostensible villain, the magnificently furred Payne (played smartly by the always cagey Ben Mendlesohn) acknowledges their plight, when he comes upon Silas and Jay seeking a night of absinthe-fueled reverie and intelligence gathering, asks to enter their camp. “It’s a free country,” Silas, a former member of his gang, tells him. “Try telling that to the Natives,” Mendlesohn dryly responds.
Werner, channeling twenty-first century historians, tells Jay that once they are eliminated and erased, their land and homes renamed only then will Native Americans be remembered nostalgically as sort of noble savages, stock historical characters for the aspirational stories of white men. Werner must have seen Dances with Wolves during a vision quest.
The film also complicates the trope of the virtuous woman bringing salvation to a wayward, lawless man. Jay’s sojourn to America resulted from a tragedy in Scotland that caused Rose Ross and her father John to escape to the American west. Jay’s interpretation of their relationship proves him to be a bit of an unreliable narrator; like America itself, he shapes his own narrative in ways that perhaps reflect wishful thinking more than reality. “I’m sorry my Romeo, but these violent delights have violent ends,” Rose tells him in a flashback to Scotland. More than a few times, Rose’s playful banter disguises tragic foreshadowing. “Jay a thousand ways to die, choose one,” she tells Jay in an earlier memory of their horseplay. “Bow and arrow,” he tells her. “[S]he does not waste words,” Jay tells Silas later. “They tumble out, wit following wisdom.” More than Jay ever realized.
Clearly, Rose is a true and honest woman, but her presence delivers very different results for Jay and Silas. For Jay, their relationship ends in bitter irony, his idealizing of Rose resulting in one dreadful consequence after another. Meanwhile, Silas’s eventual conversion from wayward bad-man to good-hearted hero may seem too neat and easy; however, if one looks to earlier films, it hardly seems far-fetched. Unforgiven’s William Mooney had been a murdering, lying son of bitch before meeting his wife, who in the Eastwood film, had already passed but even in death seems to play a civilizing influence on the former outlaw, at least for a time. Maclean plays with this trope in Slow West, demonstrating how contingency shapes life as much as those around us.
Slow West offers a lyrical and at times humorous new take on well-worn genre of the Western, dropping a heart-sick, lace-curtain innocent into the midst of a ferocious and unfamiliar world—“a jackrabbit in a den of wolves,” as Selleck says early on. Jay’s quest in the end may be as misguided and tragic as the American adventure in conquering a continent, even if he lacks the fatal acumen of the rough-and-tumble colonizers around him. We soon realize that he is, like so many other immigrants who filled up the Plains and reached the West Coast, in way over his head. The fate of many such American dreamers was not that of the gunslinging macho man, but one of deluded ambitions and hopeless gambits—more Don Quixote and Tom Joad than Wyatt Earp.