In 2013, Michael Agresta wrote for The Atlantic, “For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don’t like what we see staring back at us.” Slow West, the debut feature by former Beta Band member John Maclean, is indeed a Western, but it isn’t so much a mirror image of America as it is a curiously bright, vivid and locationally distorted daymare — and it’s all the better for it. It’s been a while since a Western this good has been released, and it’s by a Scottish director, about a Scottish boy, and filmed on the opposite end of the world. A mirror, it seems, isn’t exactly what we needed.
Maclean chose to film in New Zealand instead of the USA for practical reasons, but the decision paid off artistically: Slow West‘s tendency to set itself outside of and reconfigure the traditions of the Western is aided by the effortless quality of inscrutable otherness that comes from the landscape. Throughout the film, which plays in all forms of familiar archetype, there’s a sense of seeing the West with a newfound clarity — a clarity that can only come from physical removal. The story concerns a puny teenage Scottish boy (Jay, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) traversing the West, naively searching for Rose, the girl he loves.
When I saw Slow West, I wasn’t aware that it hadn’t been shot in the States, and instead kept daftly thinking, “Who knew we had such beautiful flora in the American West!?” My ignorance turned out to be something of a blessing, though, because it allowed me to experience the dislocation of this very familiar filmic location without knowing exactly why the film seemed like such an uncanny valley-ish vision.
The director tried — and mostly succeeded — in extracting the American terrain from the New Zealand landscape. He told ComingSoon:
I was shooting into some really scrubby woods where behind would be lakes and mountains and the most beautiful scenery ever, but I wasn’t making a New Zealand tourist video, so it was pointing the camera the other way and don’t get seduced by the landscape.
But instead of making its setting look like an exact mimicry of the West or an accidental portrait of New Zealand, Slow West takes on a liminal quality. The daymare of the West is all the more vivid for it: the surprisingly colorful, bright and even lush landscapes Maclean chose to film are seen through a character so wide-eyed that his vision has a cruel, overexposed, burning sensation. This is a film through which American audiences can’t quite exert their ownership over the land — and since the West, even a West depicted through New Zealand, will always be a thing of iconic alienness to non-Americans, neither can anyone else.
Maclean said in an interview with The Mary Sue, in regards to the location of production:
A lot of people who have seen the film tell me they like the fact that it isn’t a recognizable image of America, it adds to the feeling that it is a dreamscape.
This oneiric detachment is perfect for Slow West‘s theme of the immigrant experience: the whole film shifts the nihilism of the new population’s repulsively violent quest to spread their whiteness across the West to the perspective of a young boy who’s just arrived. Most of the characters Jay encounters are also immigrants. The first time he becomes ensconced in the culture of killing for survival, it occurs among a desperate, starving Swedish family. The film’s most intimate and deceptively key moment is delivered by a German man.
At one point, the film delivers a musical interlude performed by a group of Congolese immigrants. Such a scene, again, makes the whole thing seem dreamlike — but only because these marginal figures were erased from other depictions of the West. It’s never quite clear what is and isn’t an apparition; many of the scenes play like they might not really be happening, most notably the aforementioned encounter with a German anthropologist named Werner (the name is another sign to the self-awareness of the film being a wholly cinematic vision of the West).
Jay finds Werner because the latter and his campsite are literally the only things protruding from an ominously flat and open plain for miles. Werner is documenting the decimation of the Native Americans; as night falls, he sets off on a prophetic monologue about the annihilation of the natives by the systemless chaos of manifest destiny, and foresees them becoming a historicized absence. When Jay wakes up, Werner is gone, having left only an egg and a piece of paper that reads “West,” with an arrow pointing him in the direction of the mass grave/beacon of prosperity.
The film takes place in 1870, little more than a decade after Darwin’s theories of natural selection started pervading The Discussion, and Michael Fassbender’s toughened, tough-loving character, Silas, at one point mentions Darwin in trying warn Jay about the harshness of the West. The early mention of Darwin (which is, of course, just a 2015 mention of Darwin) alerts viewers to the insidious roots of American — and, hell, global — social inequity, pinpointing the West as the epitome of “natural selective” visions of society, which, once the West became a little less lawless, evolved into the country’s less murder-y Social Darwinist tendencies.
The fact that the film ends with a shoot-out by a crowd of people gathering around and gunning the tiny, vulnerable cabin in which an immigrant father and daughter live is particularly telling. It speaks not just to the treatment of those on the margins in the 19th century, but to the ways that treatment is paralleled in America’s dealing of immigrants today — all for the personal and monetary gain of those who are a little more comfortable.
Slow West is reminiscent of Zapata Westerns, which often funneled Mexican Revolution narratives into Marxist critique, and Spaghetti Westerns (of which Zapatas were a sub-genre) like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — widely considered one of the best Westerns of all time, and one which, like Slow West, aims to deromanticize the violence and earlier notions of heroism of the genre. And it suggests that perhaps the best way to approach and understand the old (and perhaps new) West is from a distance, with all the clarity — and surrealism — that entails.