Take it Slow: John Maclean and Kodi Smit-McPhee bring an old genre to new places with 'Slow West'

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In talking about the films that influenced him, Slow West director John Maclean names some titles that you’d expect to hear from someone who has a western coming into theatres: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, High NoonShane, High Plains DrifterOnce Upon a Time in the West. Less obvious is John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13—but that was, after all, inspired by Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo. There’s some Coen brothers in there, too: Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing. Another one: Maclean’s “favorite film of all time,” Die Hard. (Hilariously fitting given he has practically the same name as Bruce Willis’ character, though he didn’t realize that until he’d seen the film “like 20 times… because it’s more in the second and third film that his full name [John McClane] is used. In the first one, it’s just [yelling] Jooooohn!’”) And rounding out the pack… Airplane! and the Naked Gun and Police Academy movies?

It might be hard to imagine all of those influences cohering into one film, but once you’ve watched Slow West (out in theatres this Friday from A24), it’s like one of those Magic Eye drawings: you can’t unsee it. Like classic westerns, Slow West tells a traditional—and “maybe just a bit old-fashioned,” notes Maclean—story about a teenage aristocrat from Scotland who travels to the American west to find his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) is woefully unprepared for the realities of frontier life—he carries around a book that’s essentially the period equivalent of Being a Cowboy for Dummies—so it’s lucky for him that he’s soon joined by the enigmatic gunslinger Silas (Michael Fassbender). Not so lucky: Silas and Jay are being pursued by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a mercenary with a vested interest in their journey.  

The proceedings escalate to a masterfully directed siege/shootout that beats out any other action scene so far this year in terms of sheer tension. (Hello there, Precinct 13.) And keeping in line with the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, the film is shot throughout with an almost brutal sense of comedy; though Silas and The Big Lebowski’s Walter are polar opposites in terms of personality, you just know that, if he needed to, Silas could get Jay a toe by three o’clock. One particularly memorable gag was unconsciously inspired by the scene in The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear where heavy objects keep falling on Richard Griffiths’ head. “I think that was maybe in the back of my mind when I was doing that scene,” Maclean muses. No specifics. You’ll know it when you see it.

I had the chance to speak to Maclean and star Kodi Smit-McPhee at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, where Slow West screened as part of the Spotlight lineup. For Smit-McPhee, the film’s “absurdist comedy” tone was one of the draws: “It’s so in your face. It just works.” He also “related to [Jay] instantly when I started reading it: [He’s] starry-eyed, inquisitive, vulnerable, loving and almost unintentionally immature.” Though Slow West is obviously a period film, Jay as a character feels incredibly modern: He’s a naïve young man who attempts reckless acts of derring-do for the sake of his first love. It makes sense, then, that Smit-McPhee chose not to watch westerns to prepare for the role: “I want to be within Jay, and Jay’s not thinking that he’s in a western movie right now. He’s just in the 1800s, in the now.In other words: Smit-McPhee doesn’t want to know more about how one typically survives in the Wild West than the outsider Jay does, and Jay, bless his heart, knows nothing.

A side effect of having such a vulnerable main character is that Slow West strips away much of the machismo typically to be found in the western genre, becoming to an extent a revisionist—certainly a feminist—addition to the genre. You’ll find no damsels here, which was a conscious choice on the part of Maclean, who also wrote the script. “I think it’s surprising that films that have come out even in the last year or two still do the whole damsel thing,” he says. “I talked to Caren a lot about how this is a bunch of men who are messing up by bringing a lot of shit to your doorstep, and you’re going to have to be the one to clean it up and deal with it. I always wanted her to be the smartest person in the whole movie. She knows before everyone else what was going to happen and what everyone was like.”

A lot of thought went into making the script tight, notes Maclean, so there’s never a spare line of dialogue. “People talk a hell of a lot in films these days, and sometimes they just waffle and then say a few things, and then they waffle again. [With Slow West], it’s as bit more like films of the ‘50s and ’60s. Each line has to move the story along, has to reveal something. People don’t waste words.”

“Anyone that thinks Slow West is slow… if I go to my video shop, and I’m tired, and it’s late Friday night and I go to Bergman or Tarkovsky, and then I go, ‘No, I’ll just do a search on TV and watch Transformers,’” he continues. “In a way, Transformers is slower and more tiring than a Bergman!”

“It’s too much,” Smit-McPhee adds.

“It’s so much. It’s sometimes easier to watch something that’s really, deeply slow… In the end, all I want is for my audience to enjoy it. But at the same time, whether it’s 10 people enjoying it or ten thousand people enjoying it, that’s not really an issue. So you just think, ‘Well, if I enjoy it then my friends will enjoy it, and if they enjoy it they’ll tell their friends.' That’s the only way to do it."