During the summer blockbuster season, it’s easy for smaller, more offbeat and adventurous movies to get lost in the shuffle. Every Tuesday for six weeks, local film writer and alumnus Paul Matwychuk (’93 English & Film Studies, ’98 LLB) will come to your aid by highlighting a cinematic “hidden gem”— a movie that deserves your attention, even if you might not be aware it exists.
I have a pet theory that a large part of what we take to be great acting — the way, say, Willem Dafoe so effortlessly projects animalistic intensity, or Tilda Swinton conveys serene otherworldliness, or Michael Shannon suggests haunted obsessiveness, is simply a happy accident of anatomy, a fortuitous arrangement of facial features that works in much the same way as the masks worn by ancient Greek actors.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, the young star of the new Western Slow West, has one of those faces — with his pale skin, feminine mouth, and especially those wide, gentle eyes (he could almost pass as a manga illustration of Elijah Wood), he is perhaps the most vulnerable-looking young male actor working in movies today. There’s a scene in Slow West where we see him getting a campsite shave with the blade of a huge hunting knife, and the notion that the peachfuzzed face of this naive teenager would actually require a shave may be the most far-fetched sight in a film chock-full of tall tales and unlikely turns of fate.
Smit-McPhee plays Jay Cavendish, a 16-year-old Scot, the son of a wealthy landowner, who has travelled to the United States in hopes of reuniting with his long-lost love Rose — she herself has already fled across the Atlantic with her father after a scuffle that resulted in the accidental death of Jay’s father.
As the film opens, Jay has ridden as far as Colorado, where he meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a gun-for-hire who marvels that Jay has made it this far without being killed by bandits, Indians or just pure ignorance, and offers his services as guide and bodyguard. Warily, Jay accepts.
There are a few hints of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit in Slow West’s premise — a teenager hooks up with a possibly untrustworthy older gunslinger to help him with a Wild West quest — but Slow West is a stranger movie, with a more elusive sense of humour, and a more fatalistic plot. Jay’s quest to find Rose may seem like a romantic gesture, but in fact, his actions wind up causing nothing but violence and misery, some of it intentional, some of it accidental, some of it just random collateral death that writer/director John Maclean portrays as an inevitable byproduct of the dumb chaos that is at the heart of America. (The film concludes with a montage of all the dead bodies Jay and Silas leave in their wake — somewhere around 15 characters get shot over the course of Slow West’s brief 84-minute running time, many of them in a spectacular climactic shootout, where Rose and her father try to defend their house from a band of bounty hunters hidden in the vast wheatfield surrounding it.)
And yet Slow West doesn’t seem like a violent movie while you’re watching it. What stands out strongest in my memory are the quiet scenes where Jay makes unexpected connections with other displaced visitors to America: a group of freed slaves harmonizing together in a field (and who exchange some friendly words with Jay in French), or a Swedish sociologist who is researching indigenous culture and, even in the 1880s, senses that his subjects are already dying out. By the end of Slow West, it’s clear: America is no place for the gentle. All the Kodi Smit-McPhees of the world should think twice about coming here.
Slow West is playing at the Princess Theatre. Also available through iTunes.
Directed by John Maclean. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn.
Photos courtesy of See-Saw Films.