John Maclean’s debut film Slow West (2015) is a quirky Western that blends together several genres: the Western, romance, the coming-of-age story, and the road movie. Slow West accounts the journey of Scottish man Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across America to find the woman he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius), a fellow Scot who is on the run in the American West with her father, John (Rory McCann). Along his journey, Jay meets and travels with the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender).
It didn’t hit me until several listens of the soundtrack to realize that Slow West is a retelling of Orion the Hunter. The soundtrack is structured by alternating between tracks of dialogue from the film and tracks from Jed Kurzel’s beautiful score. The first track from the soundtrack is “Orion’s Belt”, a bit of dialogue from the very beginning where Jay looks up at the sky and identifies constellations. Once he finds Orion’s constellation, he takes his gun and pretends to shoot the three stars that make up Orion’s belt. Jay is Orion. Orion’s story is a tragic love story, just like Jay’s. Jay, being an innocent lad from Scotland and making his way through the rugged American West in a suit, is not a skilled hunter like Orion. He’s only a hunter in the sense that he is out hunting for Rose. In some versions of the myth, it is Artemis herself who unknowingly kills Orion with her bow and arrow instead of Scorpio – which is mirrored in Jay and Rose’s final meeting. There’s even a flashback scene where Rose asks Jay how he’d like to die and he responds, “By bow and arrow,” and she simulates killing him with a bow and arrow. After his death, Jay’s memory isn’t broadly remembered in the way Orion is remembered in the stars; however, his is memory lives on with Silas, whose life is drastically changed when he settles down and raises a family with Rose. Silas expected to survive the West until he died, but Jay’s (possibly naïve) positive outlook on life showed Silas that there’s more than just survival. It’s a lovely interpretation of the Greek myth, subtle yet meaningful.
One of the most important themes in the film is that things are not as they appear to be. The film itself is structured in a way that continually defies expectations. The earlier flashbacks, introducing Jay’s character, show him and Rose in what appears to be a requited romantic relationship, but as the story unfolds, the true nature of their relationship is revealed. Similarly, Silas joins Jay on his journey, and his motivations slowly are deconstructed throughout the film. Almost every character is not who s/he appears to be. Werner, the traveling writer, appears to be a friendly man who gives Jay shelter for the night, until he steals everything from him while he sleeps. Rose appears to be a girl in need of rescuing, until she shows she can absolutely take care of herself in the shoot out scene. Silas is a rugged and cynical man, but his transformation in the end is quite drastic. Jay is the only character in the film that is exactly as he seems: an idealistic and innocent boy chasing love, delusional as it may be.
Slow West has many quirks. While set in the American West, near Colorado, the film is actually shot in New Zealand, giving the film a Middle-Earth feel. This causes a subliminal disjunction of location, another iteration of the theme that things are not always what they appear to be, giving this Western a fantastical quality. Another quirk in the film is Maclean’s use of mise-en-scène. Maclean presents the West as rugged and dark, which makes the first glimpse of Rose’s cabin a stark contrast. It’s a clean-cut, perfectly built cabin with bright white walls. On the shelves in the cabin are charming trinkets and labeled condiments. The cabin looks like a Wes Anderson set. This unexpected aesthetic serves to further differentiate Rose and her father from the setting as well as further agonizing the audience when Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his gang of outlaws descend on their pleasant and humble home.
Maclean also has a flair for the exaggerated, perfectly exemplified in Jay’s final scene. His love has in fact become his downfall, and if that wasn’t painful enough, Maclean adds salt to his wound – literally. Bullets from Payne’s gang fly through the window and break open a bottle of salt that falls right over Jay’s open wound. Despite all the quirks and humor, Maclean is ever aware of the fatal reality that was the American West. After the shoot out, a reverse-order homage to all the fallen in the film plays out in a reverent montage. While Rose and Silas are fortunate enough to live out a peaceful life, it did not come without a cost.