There have been so many Westerns made that one could be forgiven for thinking that the Wild West lasted for at least 150 years. And yet, for as brief as that era was, its unique physical, social, political and emotional landscape made such an indelible impression on all who experienced it that it shall remain a part of the collective American psyche forever. And that’s good news for storytellers, because few periods of American history evoke such deep drama and thematic tension as the Wild West. And in recent years, few movies do such a good job of plumbing these depths as Slow West, a quiet, bloody movie about what it means to pave a road to Hell with good intentions when there aren’t even any paved roads around.
The story takes place sometime in the late 1800s, somewhere west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. A young Scotsman names Jay Cavendish travels alone across the American frontier, in search of his true love from back home, Rose Ross. As he searches for Rose, Jay is mixed up in a violent encounter in a forest between a few desperados and a Native American, and would surely end up as collateral damage if not for the intervention of a short-spoken Irish bounty hunter named Silas Selleck. Jay hires Silas to be his bodyguard during the search for Rose, as it is apparent that Jay is neither tough enough nor wise enough to survive in rough country on his own. But Silas has a second agenda: he knows there is a handsome bounty on Rose and her father, and he intends to collect. Unfortunately, so does every other bounty hunter in the area, and what was supposed to be a simple escort job turns into an extended misadventure of gunfire, betrayal and shattered expectations. The Wild West does not suffer fools lightly. But it does make them suffer.
At its heart, Slow West is a story about a naive kid chasing after his true love without any understanding of what any of that really means. Jay has no clue what the frontier is like. He doesn’t really know Rose, the woman he is so infatuated with. And while he knows why there is a bounty on Rose and her father, he still never quite grasps what it means to be the kind of person who suffers a bounty versus the kind of person who sets one. But what makes Slow West so special is how well it emphasizes just how threadbare the rule of law is in a world where distance is measured in days and justice is driven by money and vengeance rather than principle.
For the majority of this tale, we never see any human settlements; and most of the time, we don’t want to. People in numbers are bad thing here. A small camp in the wilderness is probably populated by people who intend to kill you. A lonely trading post swiftly becomes the scene of desperation, crime and violence. And the homestead where the movie’s climactic siege takes place is a reminder that those who dare to settle down and try to build something are only making themselves easy targets for those skilled at sharpshooting. For most of Slow West, the scenery is so cynical and bleak—despite its raw natural beauty and the promise of opportunity for its inhabitants—that one is reminded there often isn’t a lot separating a dark Western story from a post-apocalyptic one.
Slow West isn’t the only Western to trade on the genre’s bleaker aspects. But it is one of the few to inject a truly innocent creature into it, in the form of young Jay, who seriously has no business stepping foot outside of his ancestral home, let alone sailing across the sea and heading into the American frontier. Jay is so naive, so clueless, so without any sort of protective rind that one wonders how he ever survived the trip to Liverpool for his trip to America, the ocean voyage that followed, his transit through New York, his journey to Chicago, and his ill-conceived journey west beyond the reach of any kind of civilization. Within five minutes of meeting Jay Cavendish, we can’t tell whether to fear for his life, to be angry at his recklessness, or to pity him for his lack of self-awareness. By the time Silas the bounty hunter shows up—who is Jay’s opposite in every way—we’re somehow thankful to meet a genuinely shady character with few compunctions about killing.
The thing is, the difference between Jay and Silas becomes a kind of competition of worldview: in a land less harsh, in the place the West will one day become, Jay would be the one worth believing in. And when it’s all said and done, whose vision of the future takes hold, Silas’s or Jay’s? It all seems to point to the fact that one’s moral superiority has as much to do with their environment as their own internal compass. And that’s definitely seen in Rose, the woman for whom this entire adventure has been undertaken. She has neither Silas’ cynicism nor Jay’s innocence. She is Jay made to survive in Silas’ world, and we kind of weep for knowing that.
The moment of truth comes right at the end of the movie. At this point, we have seen how the story has resolved. We know how its characters are likely to go on after the final credits roll. There really isn’t much more to say, except that’s when the movie cuts away and gives us one last look at every single character who died during the course of the story. The whole scene takes only a minute, maybe less. But it shows us a trail of people who all died, in one way or another, so some stupid, well-meaning kid could chase a girl who didn’t even love him back. That’s the West for you.