Slow West is available to rent, buy and stream.
What is a road trip movie? It’s a good question; after all, unlike other genres built around a defining narrative feature (a romance has to have a love affair at its heart), the road trip has no defined hook. Instead, the road trip genre is defined by movement, the journey more important than the final destination. While the classic road trip movie may borrow from a range of lead genres such as thriller, horror, drama or action in creating its canvas, the final picture is often a complex portrait of the human need for discovery, rebirth or movement.
Road trip movies are often slower in pace than many other genre movies despite being centred around movement. For some, it’s all about the journey, the final destination obscure, while for others, it’s about reaching a goal, even if that is different to the one initially conceived.
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More than any other genre, the western has long been synonymous with the road trip, the wide-open landscapes and the untamed frontier of early North America providing a canvas on which to paint stories of the nomadic lonesome traveller and their quest for peace, revenge or love. While the road trip movie would continue to adapt and change over time, especially during the 1970s and 1990s, classic western imagery has remained a core part of nearly every road trip movie. Therefore, where better to start our road trip season than John Maclean’s inspired and beautiful western, Slow West (2015).
Sometimes the journeys we opt to take in life are born from innocence, naivety and love, our young hearts guiding us with little understanding of the dangers ahead. The year is 1870, and Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a vulnerable Scottish teenager in a foreign land, his horse struggling under the weight of his suitcases, his hands nervously holding onto the reigns as he passes through the deep and dangerous forests of Colorado. But what has brought Jay to this unforgiving yet hauntingly beautiful frontier? The answer lies with Jay’s sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland with her dad (Rory McCann) following a tragic incident involving Jay. But Jay will not let this force them apart and plans to reunite with his first love no matter the cost.
SLOW WEST (2015) ©LIONSGATE/FILM 4/BFI
However, it’s not long before the wide-eyed Jay finds his life threatened and saved by the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender). But is Silas all he first appears to be? And could this hardened outlaw have ulterior motives as he takes Jay under his wing? Unlike many road movies that take their time in building the journey, Slow West defies its title with a briskly paced narrative. Here there is a poetic, lyrical air to the journey we take, one that focuses on the diverse immigrant communities and individuals that believed, like Jay, that the American frontier would provide hope and freedom. However, in reality, many only found desperation, horror and a front-row seat to the orchestrated holocaust of Native American communities in the name of colonialism.
Slow West wraps the viewer in a stunning journey of hope, poetic love and innocence against a backdrop of melancholy and violence. Here, Jay is vulnerable due to the violence and betrayal surrounding him and his lyrical adolescent belief in first love. Jay’s journey is born from adoration and desperation, his mission fatally flawed from the outset by the rose-tinted teenage dream that keeps him alive. Silas understands this, and while initially using Jay to further his mission, he slowly accepts that Jay is a mere boy. Here Silas slowly morphs into a protective uncle, his mission becoming hazier and hazier as their journey nears its final bloody and emotional end.
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Maclean wraps Slow West in a series of brutal but fast, violent meetings, poetic coming of age themes and darkly comedic encounters. Here the road movie acts as a rope that ties together the narrative as Jay and Silas meet a kaleidoscope of colourful travellers as they near their final destination. This is a road movie with a fixed yet uncertain endpoint that sees our young Romeo finally reunited with his Juliet in a heartbreaking and brutal finale.
Framed in an early Widescreen format first used in Shane (1953), the dramatic landscape and wilderness of New Zealand engulf the viewer even though the cinematography places the film’s characters centre stage with stunning close-ups that show the beads of sweat rolling from their brows. Meanwhile, the outstanding performances of Smitt-McPhee and Fassbender allow us to build a rapport, in a relatively short runtime, with two men thrown together by fate, love, deviousness and money.
A sense of fatalism surrounds the journey we take from the films opening scenes, but Maclean constantly throws in surprises as we grow attached to Jay’s innocent belief in love. But ultimately, we know that Jay’s journey is built on fantasy and hope in a world of cruelty, violence and survival; his goal of true love, sadly, a mere mirage.