Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You Can Never Go Home: John Maclean's Slow West

Michael Fassbender and Kodi-Smit McPhee in Slow West.

The mythic loner of the Western has always reflected that split in the psyche of the American character where the hopes of nationhood are continually set against the rights of the individual. The Founding Fathers dreamed up a nation with a standing promise to create a country built on equality and true governance. But the hero of the Western, the one who stood tall to wrest nationhood from the anarchy of the outlaws, best supported D.H. Lawrence's idea that "the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." All of which explains why the gunslinger who brings about the law that creates governance doesn't really get to benefit from it. He never comes to live in the home he helps create. Unlike the gangster figure of the Depression Era who chose to live outside the law, and expressed what Robert Warshow described as "that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself," the hero of the Western always sought Americanism, and permanent roots, even though, deep down, he knew he'd never have them.

For someone like John Wayne, the idea of home became downright elusive if not an illusion. Despite leading an obsessive search for his niece kidnapped by Comanches in The Searchers (1956), Wayne's Ethan Edwards eventually delivered her home and alive, but Ethan didn't get to share the spoils of residence, instead he's left framed outside the door against the vast country that spawned him. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), his Tom Doniphon, in a drunken rage, burns down the home he was building for the woman (Vera Miles) he silently loved when he discovered that she had fallen instead for the lawyer (James Stewart) who taught her to read and to dream of a country she could become a citizen of. But Tom Doniphon can't share in that dream of citizenry, he can only exist in its shadow, secretly and silently saving Stewart from the superior gunman Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He has to lurk in a dark alley with his rifle aimed at this vicious killer with the purpose of preserving the rule of law so that it will triumph over the brutal vigilantism of Liberty Valance.

This nomadic character wanders from Western to Western, most famously and self-consciously as Alan Ladd's Shane riding off into oblivion after dispatching Jack Palance, or in the homeless avenger played by Clint Eastwood who deprives sheriff Gene Hackman of his desire to build his own home in Unforgiven (1992). But he also exists in the contemporary urban Western of Jack Bauer in 24, forever acting outside the law while keeping social order alive and doing penance for it by living in perpetual exile from that order. Even in the science fiction of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of HG Wells's War of the Worlds (2005), Tom Cruise's once irresponsible father saves his children from the Martian attack, but his ex-wife and current husband don't invite him in for a beer with gratitude for his ordeal when he returns them safely. Cruise ends up sharing the same open wilderness that swallowed up John Wayne. Americans will always define themselves in terms much larger than any one person, but it's individual rights – what the loner represents – that will always run counter and prevail alongside the dream of nationhood. You could say that though many voices dreamed of this nation and spoke out through the years against its dark legacy of slavery, segregation, and later even came to demand decent health care and sane gun legislation, but they were also – to excuse the pun – shot down by another constituency that represented the lone American, the "patriot," the one who saw government sponsored health care as creeping socialism (or worse), and gun laws they were convinced were designed to undermine the rights established by those who fought a revolution for their country's independence. It's a contradiction that has no resolution and the movies have reflected that unresolved riddle endlessly in Westerns.

John Wayne's Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

While American Westerns may continue to act out this issue, or delve into it with great sophistication as Sam Peckinpah did in Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and the director's cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), it's equally fascinating to watch a non-American dip his toe into the primordial pool. British director John Maclean's debut Slow West is an enraptured meditation on this same enduring myth. Although it is as unhurried as its title suggests, the movie never becomes languid and inert. At ninety minutes, Slow West is a ballad about a foreigner who comes to America to test its legends and fulfill a romantic purpose while being teamed with a Western loner gunman who is fated to live in those myths. But because Maclean is fascinated by the mythology of the American West, and the loners that populate it, he brings the vivid curiosity of an outsider who unravels with wry amusement both the appeal of its mythology as well as its limitations. Instead of revising the genre (as Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff tried to do), or blatantly extol the myths and legends of the West (as The Lone Ranger attempted a couple of years back), Maclean creates the ambiance of an Appalachian murder tale. With clear and deep focused vistas (where New Zealand stands in for the American West) exquisitely shot by Robbie Ryan who brings some of the luminescent splendor of Albert Bierstadt's paintings of the period, the story is both quirky and strange as if the True Grit of the Coen Brothers had suddenly been interpreted by Bill Forsyth (Local Hero).

Ben Mendelsohn's Payne.
Slow West follows 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man from Scotland, who is traveling through the unsettled American frontier of the 1870s as if in a fever dream in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who was forced to leave Scotland with her father. While on his quest, Jay meets a lone outlaw, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), whom he partners with in his pursuit. While Jay attempts to live out the legends of the West as any young innocent might imagine them, Silas becomes the harbinger of the brutal reality in front of them. But it isn't brutality that sets the tone of Slow West. Instead there's a quivering timbre of irony where death turns out to be as arbitrary and accidental as it is deliberate. (In one scene, they come across a skeleton with an axe in its bony hand laying under a fallen tree that clearly fell the wrong way.) Ultimately, the duo come across some bounty hunters led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who wears a huge unshapely fur coat that embraces him like a grizzly bear that expired on contact. What Jay doesn't know is that these riders are also seeking out Rose and her father because they have become outlaws with a $2000 reward on their heads. When Silas discovers the truth about Rose, he attempts to dissuade Jay from his sojourn, but without revealing the truth. Undaunted, Jay and Silas persevere until a final shootout in a frontier home settles the story.

Michael Fassbender's Silas draws upon the mystical gunslinger created by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), but he's not laconic and as armored as Eastwood was. Fassbender gives this slight role the dimensions of a man who lives outside civilization but not because he rejects it. Like John Wayne's earlier tragic heroes, Silas seeks justice and a country that's settled, but the brutality he's both witnessed and perpetrated (including a shocking killing in a grocery store where Jay loses his innocence) gives him the tragic contours of one who may desire life in a community but he knows he doesn't belong there. Ben Mendelsohn's Payne, on the other hand, is perfectly at ease with death and exile and living out a survivalist's code. Although Mendelsohn lacks the trickster charm here that he showed in Bloodlines, he exudes a vexed humour that delivers menace. (When he finally approaches the ranch that holds Rose and her dad, he yells to his posse, "Kill that house!")  Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played Viggo Mortenson's son in the apocalyptic drama, The Road (2009), displays just the right inattentive dreaminess to anchor Jay's devotion to romantic legend. (His wake-up call when he finally gets to confront Rose is a doozy.) Caren Pistorius has little screen time as Rose, but her furtive look of uncertainty satisfies the shape of her role and who she represents in Jay's fantasies.

Slow West is an art Western that is sometimes a little too impressed with itself (and its gags), but it also has a rangy looseness that I haven't seen in a Western since Fred Schepisi's comparable Barbarosa (1982), where Gary Busey played a young innocent running from the law who teams up with a veteran bandit (Willie Nelson). Barbarosa was also an American Western directed by an outsider (Schepisi is Australian) who used his detachment to provide commentary on the genre's enduring mythology. Slow West doesn't have the spacious lyricism of Barbarosa, but it has some of its legendary grandeur. When Silas walks into the wilderness at the end and leaves Rose to a home she now tends, John Maclean doesn't treat it as an act of fatalism, or willful abandonment like in Shane. Silas doesn't really need a home to live in. In Slow West, he comes to discover that he's been carrying home within him all along.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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