Directed by the awesomely named John Maclean, Slow West (2015) is a rare festival Western. Somewhat surprisingly the film attempts to mix in a heavy dose of laughs along with the standard elements of the genre that we all know and love.
Slow West focuses on Jay played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a young Scotsman travelling to the ol’ West to reconnect with his girlfriend who was forced to flee her homeland. The main body of the story focuses on Jay’s journey westwards across America under the ‘protection’ of Michael Fassbender’s Silas. The creation of this relationship is pretty clunky. The obvious switch from an almost silent, adversarial Silas, to a chummy father figure is not at all earned. You know it’s coming and sure enough it is simply plonked there to tick off a plot beat, rather than establishing it through storytelling. There is one interesting plot twist that comes really early on. But that is the highlight of the storytelling and does not particularly elevate the rest of the film along with it. Tonally, the film is hard to embrace as well, laden with a lot more humour than anticipated. Initially the humour felt like it was going to work. It was wry and reflected on the harshness of the environs. But it continues to get more and more shrill, culminating in a sight gag that would not have felt out of place in A Million Days to Die in the West (2014). That one was actually kind of funny, but the experience of being bombarded with more and more silliness whilst trying to care about the stakes of the plot did not work for me, and results in a film that feels far too light.
Aside from it being a festival Western, the main attraction for Slow West is the cast – Smit-McPhee, Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn leading the way. Whilst no one is terrible, you could hardly say anyone is particularly excellent. Fassbender feels like he is just getting by being Michael Fassbendery and Schmidt-McPhee doesn’t feel like he has the gravitas to sell you on the cross-continental quest he is undertaking. Perhaps this is the script’s fault though, as the emotional setup of the film is very strange. Of the three, Mendelsohn is the best, typically looking like he is having an absolute ball as a mugging bad guy. Actually the only aspect of the film that particularly stood out to me was the score. It assists the journeying elements of the film and did a better job of conveying the adventurous westward march the men were on than the script did.
Verdict: Even a cast as good as this cannot overcome the film’s uneven tone. It simply cannot decide if it wants to be a silly Western comedy or a thriller with some real weight and emotion. Some people in my screening seemed to get a kick out of the humour onscreen, but I struggle to recommend this one at all. Schooner of Carlton Draught
There is simply no way that a Mads Mikkelsen western, that also stars the likes of Jonathan Pryce and frickin Eric ‘Kung Fu’ Cantona, could be anything other than spectacular right? Alas dear reader, The Salvation (2014) proves that not only can it be not spectacular, it can be quite awful.
Some promising signs emerge at the very beginning of the film as it proudly flashes its western credentials. Indeed the credits music, title font and text based intro had me a little excited about a good old fashioned modern western. The plot is also classical, yet re-imagined slightly. It is about outsiders creating a new life on the frontier, battling against both the brutal landscape and brutal people that populate it. The outsider aspect is exacerbated by the fact that those finding their way are foreigners, namely former Danish soldier brothers played by Mikkelsen and Mikael Persbrandt. Finally, after a number of years alone, Mads’ wife and child are coming to join him. When things go awry, the film morphs into revenge mode, which given the man on the rampage, should be all kinds of awesome. Unfortunately though, this film mistakes needless violence and brutality for depth. Or rather, the violence and brutality splashed around is meaningless, which it can’t be in a western.
More than anything else, what sinks the film is the woeful script. The plot is stock standard western beats, beset by a fair amount of silliness, not to mention glaring inconsistencies. The dialogue is shocking too and at times the actors almost seem to be embarrassed to be spouting it. Characters often say similar things that you hear in good westerns. But there is none of the quality or wit that the genre needs to succeed. In addition to the script, the film looks really shoddy too. There is some hideous and totally unnecessary use of effects, to deliver quite simple scenes like a wagon ride. The colouring in this sequence is out of whack too, which I suspect may be the result of average ‘day for night’ shooting, but I could certainly be wrong on that. For much of the film, the quality of the image looks like it could be from the 1950s. Who knows, perhaps that was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, to homage greats of the genre past? More likely though, it is just poor craftsmanship from those involved.
None of the performers really come out of this film having impressed. Jonathan Pryce gives what is closest to a good turn, as a leering villain. But maybe I just enjoyed that because for me it called to mind his turn in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), one of the most underrated James Bond films. The weakest link though is definitely Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Occasionally he is passable, such as in his occasional appearances in Weeds, but I have never found him to be a particularly charismatic presence or skilled actor. As the main villain in this film, he is very poor, mainly just mugging at the camera without actually acting as such. He is aiming for a not particularly subtle evil honcho caricature, but falls well short of that. A cipher of a good villain.
Verdict: The Salvation fails on basically every measure and I can’t even recommend it to the biggest western or Mikkelsen film. Revenge westerns should never be tiresome, but a very poor script and nondescript everything else, ensures this one certainly is. Schooner of Tooheys New
High Plains Drifter (1973) is the second film in Clint Eastwood’s rather auspicious filmography as a director. This is the first to explore the genre of the Western, where Eastwood made his name, after the contemporary surrounds of his first directorial effort Play Misty for Me (1971).
The film starts really promisingly as a lone rider emerges from a haze of heat on a wide open plain. It is beautiful and iconic image to kick things off. The lone rider is The Stranger, played by Eastwood, who rhythmically rides into town with the eyes of all the townsfolk transfixed on him. It does not take him long to make an impression on the place either. He guns down three heavies who are bugging him in the barbershop before raping a woman in a really troubling scene. I was a big fan of proceedings up until the rape scene. Eastwood with his hat pulled very low and a beard is an iconic image of the West. The scene where he shoots the three men is a cold, brutal one. He gets the first of them right between the eyes. The rape scene jarred a lot though. It comes somewhat out of nowhere and whilst it is addressed somewhat later on, it just didn’t sit right with me. The notion of rape as a form of revenge was troubling to me, but I don’t think the film made it out to be particularly troubling, if that makes sense.
There is a strange shift in tone and sensibility a little way through the film. The townsfolk are fearing the return of three convicts who have just been released from prison and who are presumably on their way back to town to gain revenge on those who put them away. Very High Noon (1952). The concerned residents, impressed by The Stranger’s skills in murdering the three men in the barbershop, decide to hire him to protect them. After some brief reluctance, he accepts, on the proviso that he can have whatever he wants in the town. From this point the tone lightness as he gets a merry band of men together and goes from shop to shop being a jerk and getting free stuff. He also promotes Mordecai, a local dwarf, to the dual role of mayor and sheriff. After such a strong, if imperfect, start which traded in the bleakness, grit and lawlessness of the West, this all feels like a bit of a jaunt. I don’t particularly like my Clint Eastwood quippy. James Bond makes quips, not Clint. It is just all a bit silly.
Then, just abruptly as the first shift, the film gets bleak again. Eastwood forces himself onto another woman (the treatment of women by the film was a little troubling overall) and then paints the town literally red and renames it hell so he can exact his revenge on the three men riding into town. Who it is revealed through the film have done something in their past to very much wrong The Stranger. It is no spoiler to say he has his revenge too. The hellacious image of The Stranger brutally whipping a man to death, surrounded by huge flickering flames is surely the film’s defining image. It is also one that does not really match up with so much that has preceded it though.
The uneven tone and questionable attitude to the treatment of women helped to make High Plains Drifter not that enjoyable for me. Which is a shame, because I like Eastwood as a director and the early parts of this set it up to be something far better.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
If 24 was a classic Western – and it really should be – it would most likely be High Noon (1952). The clock rules in High Noon, slowly ticking down to an archetypal Western showdown between the law and the baddies.
The film is all set in one day, which happens to be the wedding day of local Marshal Will Kane and Amy Fowler, played by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly respectively. The Marshal is retiring from his job into a more peaceful new life with his Quaker missus. Their happy day is ruined by the return of the fiendish Frank Miller, who Will had put in jail some time earlier but has just been pardoned. After abandoning an attempt to flee, to the disgust of his wife, Will returns to town in order to confront his nemesis when he gets off the train. The rest of the film is devoted to an almost real-time countdown for the train to arrive, as Will tries to get a crew together to support him in standing up to the thugs, wading through a sea of small town politicking to do so. Unfortunately though he seems desperately low on support from the townspeople. The film is an interesting mix of classical and innovative approaches to the genre. The final showdown between the foes is pretty standard in the realm of iconic Western. The tense but slow-burn build up, which in many ways is extended bouts of diplomacy is not so standard. A different psychology is at play to most Westerns I have seen with much less of a focus on action. Similarly the scenery consists of predominately agricultural land and the town rather than the open, sweeping John Ford style American plains and valleys.
Running down the list of the cast of this film, it would have to be close to the greatest cast ever put together for a Western – Grace Kelly, Lon Chaney Jr., Lee Van Cleef and Gary Cooper. They are all in good form here as well, especially Kelly and Cooper as the (un)happy newlyweds. Both of them are helped by the fact that there are some really interesting elements to their characters. Kelly’s Amy has a fervent belief in her religion and the pacifism that it entails which is examined on a number of occasions in the film. On the other hand, Cooper’s Will is not just a whitewashed, perfect hero. He loses his cool, hits people, doesn’t seem to have all that many friends in town and could most certainly treat his new wife a whole lot better. Directed by Fred Zinnemann the film is astutely shot. Much of the action takes place either indoors or in the confines of the town, so it is shot much tighter than most Westerns. It is opened up a little by the use of some funky camera angles, such as a close-up of a wagon wheel as the wagon bounces along at great speed.
I really enjoyed High Noon, it manages to blend the iconography of the Western with a pretty original approach to the storytelling. It is not one of my absolute favourite Westerns, but if you have any interest in the genre, then this is one you probably want to tick off.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs