Wednesday, May 20, 2015

'Slow West' review

Maybe I should just stop renting Michael Fassbender indie movies. The last time I saw Fassbender in a movie that didn't have major studio backing, it was Frank, and we all know how that turned out (spoiler: it made my worst of 2014 list). Fassbender's first 2015 indie effort could also end up earning the dubious distinction of being one of my least favorite movies of the year. Slow West, an exquisitely shot film with a rambling narrative, is a ridiculously frustrating look at the old west that starts out as an inspired western but quickly devolves into a nihilistic mess. With underdeveloped characters and relationships, an abbreviated runtime, and an ending that made me give up on the movie entirely, Slow West is another indie flick that is beloved by many, but just not right for my tastes.

Slow West chronicles the journey of a young Scottish boy named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travels to America in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), the love of his life. Rose fled from Scotland with her father after they technically committed a murder, and now, outlaws and bounty hunters are on their tail. Jay finds himself adrift in the American West, but quickly starts to run into trouble. However, his luck changes when he teams up with Silas (Michael Fassbender), a grizzled outlaw who takes pity on Jay. The two become closer as they travel across the unforgiving landscape and face off against Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his gang, a group of mercenaries out to take down Rose and her father.

If Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers joined forces to create a stylish but hollow film, it might look something like Slow West. This film has the sharp dialogue of Tarantino mixed with the visual quirks of Anderson and the Coens and for the first half of the movie, it works pretty well. There are some effectively tense scenes and there's just enough action to keep the film moving along. But after a while, Slow West starts to meander and wander, just like the open landscape that it's set in. None of the characters are developed particularly well, and by the time the film reaches its bloodbath of a conclusion, I had given up on it completely.

For most movies, a run time under 90 minutes would be an absolute blessing. I hate movies that drag on for too long and Slow West seemed like it would be a compact, but enjoyable film. But I think it was almost too short. At a mere 84 minutes, Slow West drags and meanders through its middle section before reaching a visually sumptuous, yet completely unsatisfying conclusion. At times, the film felt like "Michael Fassbender's random adventures in the Old West" and not an actual story. It's not until the final 20 minutes of the film that we actually see Rose and her father and at that point, there was very little that could be done to shape a good ending.

Slow West also relies on the charisma of pretty much only four actors to carry the film- Fassbender, Mendelsohn, Pistorius and Smit-McPhee. Fassbender is extremely effective, giving off a tough and weathered charm that works well for the character. Silas is appropriately ambiguous and I thought that Fassbender once again did a fantastic job, in a not-so-fantastic film. Smit-McPhee was also pretty impressive, making Jay a character that I liked and cared about. But on the other hand, Mendelsohn and Pistorius have a combined screen time of maybe 15 minutes tops, so neither one of these talented actors really had much to work with.

Artistically, this is a beautifully made film in every sense of the word. Set in Colorado and other famous landscapes of the American West, but shot in New Zealand, the cinematography gives off a unique and dreamy quality to the production that draws in the viewer in the film's first half. Director John MacLean also has a spectacular visual eye, and despite this film's failures, I'm still interested to see where he goes as a director. He films action with balanced, colorful camera work and even though I was completely bored by what I was watching, I liked the way that MacLean set up the film.

What ultimately brings this film down is its rambling and meandering nature. Certain scenes serve no purpose to the plot at all and feel out of place. Character decisions don't make sense, subplots go nowhere and the villain is terribly underdeveloped. And the ending is ridiculous. The ending really frustrated me and after one thing happened, I practically gave up. In its final ten minutes, Slow West becomes a baffling and nihilistic mess, and it literally rubs salt in the wounds of the audience. As MacLean pans over the body of every single person who they killed during the course of the story, I shook my head in disbelief.

Slow West is the perfect example of style over substance. There are some tightly wound scenes, Fassbender is good and the camerawork is gorgeous, but the film is narratively hollow and portrays a hopelessly sad version of humanity. The ending made me want to throw a brick at my TV and I hated many of the choices made by the screenplay. MacLean is a talented filmmaker and I'm interested to see where he goes from here, but I have to say that his directorial debut is a profound disappointment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.5/10)

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