Saturday 6 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (8) - Slow West - Max Berghouse mulls over a modern western

Immediately after viewing Slow West (John Maclean, USA,2015) I had cause to reflect upon the nature of the "Western" surely one of the most prolific film genres ever. So prolific that it is possible to have a "Western" set well away from America or generally North America, for example in India or China. If I can find some unifying thread between all these disparate films, it is the notion of bringing peace/harmony/civilisation/relative tranquillity to an area that previously did not have it. That area was naturally called the "Wild West".

In this review I am indebted to the advocacy for the film by Paul Byrnes in his SMH Review   even though I do not come to the same conclusion.

As I grow older, I become more concerned about films being set accurately in their time and place with characters behaving, perhaps with some inflection that we moderns would understand, as persons of the period actually did and spoke, etc. The characterisation of period Slow West  is uniformly poor and I could spot, simply on one viewing, around 20 totally egregious errors. I note for example and I mention this now probably to indicate how obsessional I am, that, at least according to Mr Byrnes, the film is set in Colorado in 1870. The Winchester repeating rifle (used in the climax shootout) was only introduced in 1873 and of course is the subject of an extremely famous Western, Winchester 73 (Anthony Mann, USA, 1950) starring James Stewart. Equally the main protagonist, Jay Cavendish, scion of a Scottish laird is wandering through, something called the West, with a tour guide which he acknowledges relates to Canada and the American north-west. Colorado is certainly not in the North West.

Considering that any film, at least an American film, looks to recoup its profit from its home market, these mistakes are much more serious. American culture is deeply immersed in the possession and use of guns and has been so since before its inception. Most Americans know about guns in the way that we Australians know about Vegemite.

By more accurately depicting time and place, the director would have had the opportunity of making the film more enjoyable and truthful especially in circumstances where the storyline is weak or opaque, as in my view it is, here. The motivations of all the main characters in terms of why they are proceeding upon the "journey" would be largely contained in back story which if it were ever revealed, ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor.

My conclusion is that this is not a Western at all. It uses some very superficial appearances of a Western but my mind moves to the thought that, and this probably comes from the fact that the director is a Scot, the storyline is more like a Nordic legend in which the young, naive and in this case virginal hero pursues his true love even though, unknown to him but known to us, she is "dangerous". Added to this is a sense of Greek tragedy in which the inevitability of death, presumably the protagonist, is never far from our thoughts.

Most, perhaps all the external scenes are set in a fundamentally imaginary country. They were shot in New Zealand which, to many people would be the perfect exemplar of an imaginary country. The variety of landscape over what is a really quite small area in which Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender) travel is simply grossly inconsistent with the American West of the period (as I said previously uncertain) but must be following the Civil War and presumably in the mid to late 1870s. It is as inaccurate as Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (USA, 1995). The great mid-west still had vast numbers of Indians, huge buffalo herds, railways abuilding and immigrants by the multi-thousand trying to stake out a livelihood as peasant farmers. It was in fact extremely crowded. And the characters whom Jay meets along the way, including a troupe of coloured minstrels (referred to in one review as Congolese) is not merely pointless, but well-nigh impossible. Were it not for the fact that vast numbers of people were already in the old West, a young and untutored man like Jay would never have been able to make his way at all.

The acting is workmanlike: Smit- is leaden with a cod Scots accent, Fassbender in my view simply going through the motions. Ben Mendelsohn channels the same role he has perfected in his last two or three films.

Unlike other reviewers, in particular Mr Byrnes, I don't think the film is "anti-gun". The climax – the shootout, is quite expertly conducted. Firstly, apart from Silas, who is a bounty hunter who wishes to beat competing bounty hunters to the prize of Jay' s "one true love", is a bounty hunter dressing exclusively in the Roman collar and black suit of a minister of religion. It is he who kills the father of Rose (the Scottish ladylove) with what I take to be a quite superbly aesthetically beautiful Sharpe' s rifle. This was the very large rifle of big bore, used as a major weapon against the herds of buffalo. Technically is described as a "breach loading single shot rifled musket". The precision with which it is used in the film and the wonderful sounds it makes, not only as it fires, but also as the bolt is released to allow reloading, is done several times and the entire action is poetic. Similarly Rose in her defence makes superb use of a Winchester 73. This is the famous Western rifle with a reloading mechanism partly encompassing the trigger which is pulled downwards after each shot and by pulling back, it reloads the rifle and cocks it for the next shot. She is shown shooting numbers of rounds with extraordinary precision and economy of movement with each metallic click and clack of the mechanism faithfully recorded. Similarly we see her reloading what is presumably a Colt .45 revolver, again shown in all its deadly elegance and with Rose reloading and firing with exceptional precision. This is not an anti-violence nor anti-gun film. In fact it revels in both.

The film was apparently well-regarded and was chosen for the SFF after being seen at the Sundance Festival. It therefore carries a certain repute. Being well-regarded at Sundance is like the Pope creating a new Saint – the lure recognition enables a great many faults to be ignored. I believe the film I saw is a re-edited version of what screened at Sundance film, although I'm not sure.

I note that the plotline is carried forward significantly by voice-over of Silas. Max's rules of film criticism, number one, indicate that extensive voice-over indicates an incapacity to develops plotline by visual and other aural means.

So in conclusion, worthy of being seen, but I can't see the film going any further. I saw the film at the Sydney Film Festival and I think my long-term view of the film is intimately connected with the changing direction and choice of new films which for me at least, don't bring any particular repute to that Festival. But I also acknowledge that this is a complex issue. 

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