Slow West

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.

12 Years a Slave

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” — Solomon

12 Years a Slave (2013) is a historical epic drama directed by Steve McQueen (Shame) and written by John Ridley. It tells the story of a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. The film is based on the memoir of the same name, by the film’s protagonist Solomon Northrup.

When I first heard the premise for this movie, I was incredibly excited to see this film. I was very curious to see what was sure to be an incredible film. Just don’t make the same mistake I made: do not see this film on a 2nd date. It’s just not a good idea.

12 Years a Slave centers on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist and free man in New York. He has a wife and two children, a nice house, and a respectable and happy life. He is approached by some members of a traveling circus who need a good musician. He accepts, since his wife and children are gone for a month. At a dinner of celebration, the men take advantage of Solomon’s trusting and unsuspecting nature and get him drunk. Once incapacitated, the men sell him into slavery. At that point, the film follows his journey to get back to his family and documents the many experiences he has along the way.

The film begins somewhere in the middle of his life in slavery, with a shot of a group of slaves getting instruction on how to cut sugar cane. They all have a blank expression, blank yet irritated, as the overseer communicates to them as if they can’t understand his instructions. There are a few more scenes explored — Solomon pleasing a slave woman in the night and Solomon attempting to write a letter with a shaved stick and blackberry juice — and then the film starts from the beginning in New York. It helps provide a stark contrast between his clean and comfortable life and the hardships faced in slavery. There have been many slavery films made, but I think McQueen made some poignant choices with showing suffering in this film. Many times, cruelty and malice are introduced or hinted it and then quickly hidden so as not to disturb the viewer too much. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen lingers on suffering to emphasize the pain. An example is when Solomon is almost hung. He’s saved, but only can Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cut him down. What follows is an incredibly uncomfortable and striking scene, where Solomon still tied with his hands behind his back and his neck in a noose only has his toes on the ground. He struggles to stay on his toes and all that can be heard is the wrenching sound of his stifled windpipe as he struggles to breath. What makes the scene even more uncomfortable is that other slaves in the background begin to leave their living quarters and run errands and do work while he’s struggling to survive. Even children begin to play and laugh, an awkward sound to mix with the sounds of his throat. The scene goes on for quite a while, driving into the viewers just how horrible this is.

The film as a whole is incredible with very strong performances, particularly by Michael Fassbender (as slave owner Edwin Epps) and Lupita Nyong’o (as Patsey). Fassbender portrays the brutal slave driver with such nuance and rage. He mixes together a sweet and gentle nature with over-the-top anger that creates an awkward blend of a human being. Epps is in love with Patsey, the slave, and Fassbender deftly expresses fury rooted in discomfort whenever he has to lash out and punish Patsey. His terrible wife (Sarah Paulson) drives her husband to hurt Patsey, for she understands that he loves Patsey more than he loves her. His performance is incredible and it’s a relief that he finally receives an Oscar nomination after his snub for Shame. Nyong’o gives an incredible performance as well. Patsey is the queen of the slaves at the Epps estate. She picks more cotton than any man by a startling margin. She gives off an air of strength and resilience, but when Mistress Epps gets involved, she’s humiliated and abused worse than any other slave in their homestead. Nyong’o truly shines when her character hits desperation. There’s a scene where Patsey asks Solomon to end her life so that she may find peace. Solomon doesn’t want to live with the weight on his soul to take the life of someone, but her reasons are all true. She’s truly desperate, begging for the peace she so severely needs, and Nyong’o performs sincerely. Fassbender and Nyong’o are the strongest performances in the film.

Ejiofor gives a strong performance as well, but I struggled to connect with him. His performance felt insincere, like he was trying too hard to find the character. As a free man turned slave, it’s understandable for Solomon (or Platt as he was called in slavery) to hold on to his identity and mannerisms that constitute who he is, but they felt too forced and too proper for this role. It continually disengaged me from what was occurring in the film. However, his performance at the end of the film is incredible. After twelve long years, he’s finally reunited with his family. He sees his children grown. He meets his daughter’s husband and child, who is named after him. He realizes that they never forgot him. He begins to weep, apologizing for his composure, and his family embraces him and weeps with him. It’s an incredibly moving end to the film.

This will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, even though I would choose something else. Its biggest weaknesses are Ejiofor’s performance and its score, but its strengths are far more. It’s not a common-told story about slavery, which makes for an enthralling and moving experience: about the injustices of slavery and the resilience that the memory of family can give someone.

X-Men: First Class

Quote of the movie: “Mutant and proud!”

X-Men: First Class (2011) is a reboot of the X-Men franchise, directed by Matthew Vaughan. The film chronicles the lives of Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Both are young boys who have a gift, but they have discovered and developed them in very different ways. Charles, with the subtle gift of telepathy, grew up in a secure household, very open to learning and understanding his ability. Eric, at a German concentration camp during WWII, discovers his ability trying to save his parents, and it’s only by the murder of his mother when he can begin to understand how to tap into his power. From the very get-go, Charles has a safe and peaceful association with his ability — and mutants in general. Eric, on the other hand, associates his gift with anger and pain — and with the concept of power.

To further establish Charles’ open-mindedness, he catches “his mother” in his kitchen once. She looks and sounds like his mother, but she doesn’t act anything like her. Attempting to steal some food, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) transforms from Charles’ mother to her real self: a scaly blue creature with red hair. Charles invites her to his home, promising her companionship and food. While this movie primarily focuses on Charles and Eric, Raven is a very important third character. Charles doesn’t mind her appearance, but he encourages her to hide her real self from society. It’s this society conformity that Raven struggles with throughout the entire movie. She wants to be “beautiful”, but human society would never accept her as such. She takes on a beautiful guise, but that’s not *really* her. It’s not until Eric works together with Charles and Raven where she finally feels some acceptance from another person; he encourages her to be her true self.

Whether or not this follows X-Men comic lore, I really enjoyed the backstory in this movie. From my vague memory of X-Men cartoons, I knew that Professor X and the X-Men constantly battle against Magneto and his group of mutants. I’m sure it had been implied that they were friends at some point, and I really enjoyed seeing their friendship in this movie. Charles, through his gift of telepathy, can truly understand the experiences and feelings of anybody he reads, which makes his guidance and concern extremely sincere. He really wants to find the best inside of everyone.

Eric has a fervent hatred towards Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother. While working with Charles, he internally always wanted to get revenge against Shaw. When the moment finally comes, he shuts out Charles, who would convince him to act otherwise. He murders Shaw and he exhibits his true feelings about mutants and humans — mutants are the better beings and humans must be destroyed, or else they will destroy the mutants. Charles doesn’t feel that way at all; he truly believes that there can be coexistence. Charles and Eric fight and Eric accidentally deflects a bullet into Charles’ spine, causing his paralysis. Eric truly cares for him, but, realizing their differences, he leaves. Before he leaves, he calls for the other mutants to join him. Raven joins him. She also cares for Charles — they have an almost brother/sister bond — but he understands that she needs to follow Eric.  It’s an interesting take on back history that evolved from friendship and brotherhood into animosity and hostility.

The film flaunts a mantra similar to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — promoting an attitude of self-acceptance. The film’s use of “Mutant and proud” makes the message a little too blunt, but the message is still appreciated. The message even shines light on Charles’ character. As a supporter of mutant-kind, he tries to keep mutant powers discreet — a reality that is quite convenient for him since his ability is undetectable. It shows two sides of his character: one of which is incredibly caring and helpful to the cause while the other promotes a sense of shame.

The reboot is a great success, with a great script and cast. The sequel is set to be released on May 23, 2014, bridging together the new and old cast.