It is sometimes tempting to think of the Western as an omnibus genre, because aside from a general association with that crucial 20-year period in America from the Civil War there are few apparent constants. Many genre definitions extend backwards in time too, so that you get tales of Davy Crockett, say, included in the genre frame. At its heart, a Western(tm) is always a tale of nemesis, and we’ve been carefully trained by John Ford and John Wayne to think of this in terms of a kind of restorative justice. But the West, and how it was won, has less to do with justice than civilisation. Specifically, in the trade-off between the two, since both can only rarely be served simultaneously.
Slow West focuses this question in the person of a single lost petty nobleman, tracking his long-lost love across the Atlantic and thence across the West. Consciously, he constructs his journey as a romantic one, to fulfil the promise of a love match. Unconsciously, he seeks to correct an injustice committed by himself. Unusually in the genre, he is his own nemesis, in that his two motivations cannot be reconciled. Love, representing society, means the failure of justice, and justice would naturally doom the love match.
There are some wonderful moments in this drama, and it is very carefully paced and constructed to obfuscate the horrors driving the scenario. It is, a strange term, undramatic in its depiction of the quest and its consequences. It has a wonderfully understated and emotionally neutral score that reminded me of the wonderful zither score for The Third Man, where the music cues work to subvert the obvious emotional beats and paradoxically cause them to have a deeper impact than they would otherwise. The cast turn in sterling work, in quite naturalistic performances.
Nevertheless, this feels and presents like an ambitious journeyman piece. It lets its characters wear their masks and lie to themselves, worse, lie to us. The characters are never forced to recognise what they are, and the roles they have played in creating their own circumstances. It is a fine effort, and well worth the watch for anyone enamoured of either romance or the western, but it is an ephemeral work.
I gave it a 7/10 on IMDB because the performances were strong, the cinematography was good, I liked the sound-track, and it passed the six laugh test without ever losing its fundamental pathos.