How much can one really great scene redeem a film? If it comes during the climax and it alters your perception of a number of the characters, well, what are you supposed to do with all the preceding lead up -- the stuff that left you bored or bothered or some combination of the two?
I spent most of Slow West alternating between feelings of annoyance and ambivalence. I love -- love, love, love -- Westerns, and I loved the idea of this film -- Michael Fassbender playing a rough-and-tumble reformed outlaw escorting a baby-faced Kodi Smit-McPhee, a hopeless romantic and wilderness novice, across the treacherous American West in the 1870s. Even the ancillary details of this setup were promising. Smit-McPhee's Jay Cavendish is searching for his unrequited love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who fled their native Scotland with her father after the accidental killing of a nobleman. Fassbender's Silas knows this and is hoping to be led straight to the Ross family so he can collect the sizable bounty on their heads. Silas himself is being pursued by his old gang, which is led by the delightfully grimy and sinister Payne, played by Ben Mendelsohn.
The devil is in the details, of course, and it is there -- in the details -- that Slow West misses a few too many beats. There's nothing in particular that is glaringly wrong, just this off feeling that permeates the whole thing. Smit-McPhee and Fassbender don't seem to have much chemistry, their tense partnership not playing very believably. The flashbacks to Jay and Rose in Scotland don't succeed in generating sympathy for a doe-eyed fool who has wandered way too far from home. It feels -- ahem -- slow, despite a brisk runtime of 84 minutes.
More broadly — and at the risk of sounding like a nativist — it comes off as a film made by a bunch of Europeans trying to imitate a great American art form, and not bringing much original along with it. That’s just what it is, by the way. Slow West was filmed in Scotland and New Zealand. Its director, John Maclean, is Scottish. None of the stars are American. Of course, even a basic knowledge of Westerns is enough to know that Europeans are just fine at making them. This, though, isn’t exactly Sergio Leone.
But then there’s the end.
It’s hard to entirely forgive a film’s flaws because of its conclusion. This one — a shootout at the Ross family cabin that neatly unites a bunch of very loose threads — is so good that it succeeds in at least making you wonder if you missed a great deal of subtle brilliance along the way. It’s a breathless, tragic finish against a stunning landscape-painting backdrop, a yellow-gold wheatfield offset by the bluest sky blue. Slow West doesn’t simply lumber to life in its final act. It grabs its audience roughly by the neck, delivering both heartpounding thrills and heavy doses of pathos.
What does it mean that the plodding, off-flavored journey to the Ross cabin is suddenly imbued with a great deal of purpose just before the final bell? If I had a better idea, I wouldn’t have bookended this review with philosophical questions about storytelling. Slow West is a bit of a bore until it is very terrific. Last impressions have to count for plenty when they are this stark.