Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Slow, maybe; Kiwi certainly, but completely bad-ass

The scarecrow's resemblance to the Reaper is no accident.
Slow West (2015) is a stunningly sensitive bad-ass nuanced balls-out Western that looks like a John Ford picture, if Utah were in Colorado and Colorado was in New Zealand.  Over the last decade, Westerns have been forced into the false choice between repetition of standard tropes for an undemanding audience (usually of cable TV subscribers) and European-style deconstructionist elegies both for an historical moment that may never have really existed and for an era of filmmaking when art could comfortably hide behind genre formulas, undetected by the mainstream press, and happily taking care of itself without anyone getting wise.

It seems only Quentin Tarantino can make a Western for the theatrical market without being accused of Art, which is ironic, given that Tarantino's Django is one of his usual post-modern collages of other people's work, decipherable only in a world of manufactured objects and without reference to real people, real history or the real world at all.  If that's not arty, I don't know what is.

Slow West may be a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner (how many Westerns have ever come out of Sundance?), but it has a story simple enough for a Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film, a similar running time and Michael Fassbender in a part Scott would have been comfortable man, the bad man who has decided to do something good for a change and a little bit of money (which of course turns out not to matter).  A Scottish boy pays an ex-bounty hunter to guide him West to claim his love, whose father has taken her with him a-pioneering.  That's it -- just a lot of hard country to pass through, and, as you will expect if you know Westerns, a destination far different than the one anticipated.

I think this clip demonstrates the tantalizing balance between heavy consequences and light reaction that guides the film.

Sure, Jay almost died a gruesome death and got an arrow through his hand, but Silas's reaction is "Nice catch."  And the slapstick payoff would have made Buster Keaton proud.

Certainly an American fan is going to miss familiar markers -- Bronson Canyon locations, oft-used character actors, dialogue tropes (I don't think one person says the word "reckon" in this film), but otherwise it is absolutely completely satisfying as a piece of Western entertainment, fusing the Ford-Hawks vision of the individual in the landscape with the long, slow buildup to terrible violence of a Leone film.  The two styles live very well side-by-side, with a surprising and terrible conclusion, that is satisfying, right and largely unanticipated.  The final encounter between Jay and his beloved, (Caren Pistorius) results in two acts of brutality that are beautifully and poetically balanced.

And, as evidenced by the clip, the film has a wonderfully black sense of humor -- the finale (which seems to have been directed by a morbid Harold Lloyd) gives new life to the phrase "rubbing salt into the wound."

Not many films today give such balance to word, picture, character and story as does writer John McLean here; although he does seem to favor picture.  I commend to you a stunning sequence with a farmhouse under siege, the villains hiding in the tall grass you see at the picture at the top of this post.  Given that the occupants in the house have barely any ability to fight back, it probably is not necessary that each gunman pop up, fire a shot and then disappear like a lethal brand of Whack-A-Mole.  But it makes for a lethal yet funny sequence, the illogic of which one forgives for the sake of the visual poetry.

And, oh yeah, there's three Congolese guys singing in French in the middle of the prairie.  For no good reason.  Gotta love that.