Slow West manages to pull off an interesting trick over its runtime. While the film’s plot is simple, going from point A to point B, the film is clearly more interested in the journey than the destination, leaving the film with a rougher through line. The story follows Scottish 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he crosses the American west to reunite with the love of his life, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled with her father John (Rory McCann) after an incident involving Jay made them criminals. Jay is devoted to finding his love, but there’s no real sense that the seriousness of the relationship exists outside of his head. On his journey, Jay encounters Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a mercenary who offers his services as a bodyguard and guide. As it turns out, the biggest threat facing Jay is a former criminal associate of Silas’ named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s leading a group after a bounty placed on John and Rose.
The film ultimately leads to an extended shoot-out at the farmhouse where John and Rose are hiding, which includes a few surprising developments in the midst of old-fashioned Western action. Before that, though, there are plenty of narrative digressions Jay and Silas encounter. In one, Jay wanders into the wrong campsite after relieving himself at night, and is told a lengthy, hilarious story about a wannabe gunslinger whose ambition in life is to appear on his own “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster. Another finds Jay encountering an anthropologist studying Native American migration. These digressions are what seem to give the film its name, in a manner of speaking: the slowness here has more to do with no sense of urgency to the trip.
Though the film threatens to drag at times, it’s pulled together by a mostly capable cast. Smit-McPhee struggles with the Scottish accent, with bits of his native Australian slipping through, but he pulls off the youthful naïveté Jay requires. Fassbender and Mendelsohn, meanwhile, bring their considerable skills to fleshing out characters who could easily fade into the background in the hands of other actors. As for the shootout that comes with the climax: it brings the film to life in a way that doesn’t happen prior to the sequence, while also turning the ultimate quest into something more intriguing at the moment it’s revealed to be pointless. It’s unusual, like many parts of Slow West, but it works.